Inmates’ families and advocates have lost another battle to place a cap on the price of in-state telephone calls made from prison.
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted 2-1 to strike down regulations that would have prevented phone companies from charging high prices for intrastate phone calls made by inmates.
“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules were challenged by telecom firms,” the New York Times reported. These firms disagreed with the rate structure imposed and argued “the agency did not have the authority to regulate the in-state prison phone rates.”
The court agreed, saying the FCC went beyond its authority when it limited the rate of these calls in 2015. In its opinion, the court noted, “Following the presidential inauguration in January 2017, counsel for the FCC advised the court that, due to a change in the composition of the commission, ‘a majority of the current commission does not believe that the agency has the authority to cap intrastate rates.’”
The FCC had placed a cap on interstate and intrastate calls in response to years of complaints by prisoners’ advocates and families. But, inmate phone industry leaders Global Tel*Link and Securus Technologies filed a petition to block the regulation pending the outcome of the court’s decision on the lawsuit against the agency.
The commission was preparing to defend its regulations, but President Trump appointed Ajit Pai as the FCC’s new chairperson. According to the Times, Pai said agency lawyers would not argue to defend its regulations in the court.
“Since his appointment, Mr. Pai has led a charge to overturn Obama administration regulations at the FCC,” the Times reported. As a commissioner, Pai was against the 2015 prison phone rate rules.
The Times reported that Pai said he would work with legislators and other FCC members to address the high cost of prison phone calls “in a lawful manner.” According to the Times, Mignon Clyburn, the only Democratic commissioner, has been at the head of the fight to restrict the costs of high prison phone rates, calling the rising cost a civil rights issue that prevents inmates from being able to call their children. Currently, there are more than 2 million children in the United States with at least one incarcerated parent.
It’s “the greatest form of regulatory injustice I have seen in my 18 years as a regulator in the communications space,” said Clyburn in a statement.