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Incarcerated people have no choice in the selection of their communications services provider. The authorities responsible for prisons, jails, or other types of detention facilities typically negotiate with the providers of incarcerated people’s communications services (IPCS) and select a provider without input from the incarcerated people who will use the service. Once the facility makes its choice—often resulting in contracts with providers lasting several years—incarcerated people have no means to switch to another provider, even if the chosen provider charges unreasonable rates, imposes additional fees, adopts unreasonable terms and conditions for use of the service, or offers inferior service. Thus, providers of communications services to incarcerated people have monopoly power in the facilities they serve.

Egregiously high rates and charges and associated unreasonable practices for the most basic and essential communications capabilities impede incarcerated people’s ability to stay connected with their loved ones and financially burdens incarcerated people and their families that pay for these services. The Commission has long recognized the far-ranging consequences that unreasonably high calling rates inflict on incarcerated people, their families, and society as a whole.

Historically, the Commission used the term “inmate calling services” or “ICS” when referring to phone services provided to incarcerated people. In 2023, the Commission began using the term “incarcerated people’s communications services” or “IPCS” instead of “inmate calling services” or “ICS” to refer to the broader range of communications services now subject to the Commission’s jurisdiction as a result of the enactment of the Martha Wright-Reed Act in January, 2023.

The Martha Wright-Reed Act: On January 5, 2023, the President signed into law the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022. The Act removes the principal statutory limitations that had prevented the Commission from setting comprehensive and effective just and reasonable rates for IPCS.

Specifically, the Martha Wright-Reed Act:

  • Modifies section 276 of the Communications Act, which is the source of the Commission’s statutory authority over communications services provided to incarcerated people, to explicitly enable the Commission to require that rates for incarcerated people’s communications services be just and reasonable, irrespective of the “calling device” used;
  • Explicitly provides the Commission with jurisdiction over advanced communications services used by incarcerated people, including “any audio or video communications service used by inmates . . . regardless of technology used.”
  • Makes clear that the Commission’s jurisdiction extends to intrastate as well as interstate and international communications services used by incarcerated people;
  • Expressly allows the Commission to “use industry-wide average costs,” as well as the “average costs of service of a communications service provider” in setting just and reasonable rates;
  • States that the Commission “shall consider,” as part of its ratemaking, “costs associated with any safety and security measures necessary to provide” telephone service and advanced communications services; and
  • Directs the Commission to promulgate regulations necessary to implement the statutory provisions not earlier than 18 months and not later than 24 months after the date of its enactment.

On March 17, 2023, the Commission released the 2023 IPCS Notice and 2023 IPCS Order in a new docket, WC Docket No. 23-62, and the existing docket, WC Docket No. 12-375, to begin implementation of the Martha Wright-Reed Act. The 2023 IPCS Notice primarily sought comment on how the Commission should interpret the Act’s language to ensure that the Commission implements the statute in a manner that fulfills Congress’s intent.

An Order accompanying the 2023 IPCS Notice directed the Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) and the Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) to update and restructure a previous collection of provider data to inform the Commission’s implementation of the Martha Wright-Reed Act. On July 26, 2023, WCB and OEA released an Order adopting instructions, a reporting template, and a certification form for this newly updated Mandatory Data Collection. The Order required all IPCS providers to file their responses to this 2023 Mandatory Data Collection no later than October 31, 2023.

On August 3, 2023, WCB and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau jointly released a Public Notice seeking comment on proposed revisions to the Annual Reports and Annual Certifications that the Commission requires certain providers of IPCS to submit.

Prior History: Beginning in 2013, the Commission began taking a number of steps in WC Docket No. 12-375 to address the high rates paid by incarcerated persons and their loved ones for interstate calling services. In the 2013 ICS Order, the Commission adopted interim interstate rate caps and adopted the Commission’s first mandatory data collection regarding ICS, requiring all providers of those services to submit data on their underlying costs of service. It also adopted an annual reporting obligation requiring providers to provide specific information on their operations, including their rates and ancillary service charges.

In the 2015 ICS Order, in light of evidence of continued “egregiously high” rates, the Commission adopted a comprehensive framework for regulating rates and charges for both interstate and intrastate calling services for incarcerated people, re-adopting the 2013 interim interstate rate caps until the new rate caps became effective, and extending them to intrastate calls. The Commission also limited permissible ancillary service charges (separate fees that are not included in the per-minute rates assessed for individual inmate calling services calls) to only five types—(1) Fees for Single Call and Related Services; (2) Automated Payment Fees; (3) Third-Party Financial Transaction Fees; (4) Live Agent Fees; and (5) Paper Bill/Statement Fees—and capped the charges for each type. The Commission further concluded that ICS providers’ payments to correctional facilities from part of the providers’ ICS revenues, commonly referred to as “site commissions,” did not constitute a legitimate cost to the providers of providing ICS and accordingly excluded site commission payments from the cost data the Commission used in setting rate caps. Several parties appealed the Commission’s 2015 ICS Order, as well as a subsequent Commission Order on Reconsideration. The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit addressed the appeal of the 2015 ICS Order in its 2017 decision in GTL v. FCC, where it vacated and remanded portions of the 2015 ICS Order. The GTLdecision resulted in thecontinued applicability of the 2013 interim rate capsto ICS.

In the 2020 Order on Remand, the Commission addressed the D.C. Circuit’s directive that the Commission consider on remand whether ancillary service charges can be segregated into interstate and intrastate components for the purpose of excluding the intrastate components from the reach of the Commission’s rules. The Commission found that ancillary service charges generally are jurisdictionally mixed and cannot be practicably segregated into interstate and intrastate components except where, at the time a charge is imposed and the consumer accepts the charge, the call to which the service is ancillary is clearly an intrastate call. As a result, the Commission concluded that ICS providers are generally prohibited from imposing any ancillary service charges other than the five permitted by the Commission’s rules, and providers are generally prohibited from imposing charges in excess of the Commission’s applicable ancillary service fee caps.

In the 2020 ICS Notice, the Commission sought comment on additional steps to address unreasonable rates and charges. The Commission then released the 2021 ICS Order, which, among other actions, reformed the treatment of site commissions, set new interim interstate rate caps for prisons and jails with average daily populations of 1,000 or more incarcerated people, and capped international calling rates for the first time. In the 2021 ICS Order, the Commission also sought to improve the data it collected on calling services for incarcerated people as part of its efforts to set reasonable permanent rate caps. It delegated authority to WCB and OEA to establish a Third Mandatory Data Collection to collect uniform cost data to use in setting rate caps that more closely reflect inmate service providers’ costs of providing service at correctional facilities.

In September 2022, the Commission issued the 2022 ICS Order, which adopted requirements to improve access to communications services for incarcerated people with communication disabilities and targeted reforms to lessen the financial burden on incarcerated people and their loved ones when using calling services. That item also included a Further Notice seeking additional public input and evidence relating to further reforms concerning incarcerated people with communication disabilities and providers’ rates, charges, and practices in connection with interstate and international calling services.

Current Rate Caps: The interim rate caps currently in effect, shown in the chart below, apply to all interstate and international telephone calls from correctional institutions, but do not apply to local, or in-state calls.

Type of Facility Maximum Total Interstate Rate Cap (per minute) Maximum International Rate Cap
(per minute)
Prisons $0.14* $0.14* plus the average amount the provider paid to send calls from the U.S. to the foreign country
Jails with 1,000 or more incarcerated people $0.16* $0.16* plus the average amount the provider paid to send calls from the U.S. to the foreign country*
Jails with less than 1,000 incarcerated people $0.21 $0.21 plus the average amount the provider paid to send calls from the U.S. to the foreign country
* These $0.14 and $0.16 caps include a $0.02 per minute allowance for “site commissions” if the service provider pays a prison or jail for the right to serve that facility. Where the provider pays no site commissions, these caps are $0.12 for prisons and $0.14 for jails. Where a state or local law sets the site commission amount, the provider may pass that amount through to consumers, as long as the total amount billed to the consumer is no more than $0.21 per minute.

Additional Service Charges: Providers often assess service charges and fees in addition to the rates charged for service. The Commission has limited both the types of charges and the amounts of the additional fees that providers may assess on such interstate or international calls for incarcerated persons.

Permitted Additional Service Charges Monetary Cap Per Use / Instruction
Automated payment fees $3.00
Call fees for collect calls billed through third parties on a call-by-call basis. $3.00 per transaction, plus the effective, per-minute rate, when payment is through an automated payment system; $5.95 per transaction, plus the effective, per-minute rate, when payment is through a live agent.
Live agent fees for phone payment or for an account set up with optional use of a live operator. $5.95
Paper bill/statement fees (no charge is permitted for electronic bills/statements). $2.00
Prepaid account funding minimums and maximums. Provider may not institute prepaid account funding minimums or set prepaid account funding maximums under $50.
Third-party financial transaction fees, such as MoneyGram, Western Union, credit card processing fees and transfers from third party commissary accounts. $3.00 per transaction, when payment is through an automated payment system; $5.95 per transaction, when payment is through a live agent.
Applicable taxes and regulatory fees. Provider may pass these charges through to consumers directly with no markup.

These limits only apply to interstate and international calls. Consumers may have to pay additional service charges and higher fees in connection with calls between an incarcerated person and someone located in the same state.

Major Rulemaking Notices and Orders

Earlier Notices and Orders

Other Orders

Listening Sessions

Annual Reporting and Certification

Mandatory Data Collections

2023 IPCS Mandatory Data Collection

Third Mandatory Data Collection

Second Mandatory Data Collection

First Mandatory Data Collection

Thursday, October 26, 2023