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FCC Can't Cap the Cost of Cross-State Prison Phone Calls, Court Rules (theverge.com) 173

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: The Federal Communications Commission does not have the authority to cap the cost of prison and jail phone calls within states, an appeals court ruled in a decision today, dealing a massive blow to inmates and their advocates who have spent years litigating caps on the cost of such calls. Over several years, the FCC, under Democratic leadership, moved to cap the cost of calls for inmates. Activists argued that prisoners were effectively being extorted by private companies charging exorbitant rates -- a move that benefited private prisons and the states that got cuts of the revenue. Some of those states joined with companies in appealing the FCC's rules. The agency first moved to cap rates across state lines, and then, later, within states. Today, the court ruled that the FCC had overstepped when it attempted to regulate the price of calls within states. In the majority opinion, the court left little wiggle room for advocates of price-capping, with the possible exception of the cross-state caps, which are a minority of calls made by inmates. The opinion vacated not only the agency's proposed caps for in-state calls, but said the agency also lacked justification to require reports on video calling services. It also vacated a provision that would ban site commission payments.
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FCC Can't Cap the Cost of Cross-State Prison Phone Calls, Court Rules

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  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:27PM (#54612473)

    In the majority opinion, the court left little wiggle room for advocates of price-capping, with the possible exception of the cross-state caps, which are a minority of calls made by inmates.

    So any lawyer working with inmates in a certain state just needs to get a virtual phone number in another state, and have it forward to his regular phone number.

    • by mellon ( 7048 )

      Beat me to it. Yup. :)

    • by BankRobberMBA ( 4918083 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:45PM (#54612579)

      It's not the lawyers, it's the families. Many of them struggle with technical issues, and almost all of them struggle with cost issues. Many inmates rely on their families to send them the money to make calls to maintain family ties. This makes that much harder.

      • Many of them struggle with technical issues

        How hard is it to set up a Google Voice again?

        • by BankRobberMBA ( 4918083 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @05:04PM (#54612731)

          It's not hard for you. it's not hard for me, either. So, let's agree that we're not talking about you or me (although I was in Federal Prison for 9 years).

          Many of these people have never used a computer before. Some have only used public access computers (like those in a library), often only for things like YouTube and maybe email. Many of these people are elderly. Some of these people have learning disabilities.

          I was locked up with Walter Forbes and John and Tim Rigas. We're not talking about those guys' families. We're talking about the families of guys who dropped out of high school, don't have GEDs, and wound up in prison because they were trying to make money illegally and got caught.

          Many of them struggle with technical issues.

        • For someone who doesn't know it exists? Pretty difficult.
        • by Shadowmist ( 57488 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @05:26PM (#54612887)

          Many of them struggle with technical issues

          How hard is it to set up a Google Voice again?

          Very hard since one of the things you can't count on having in prison is your own private internet connection.

      • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @05:39PM (#54612951) Journal

        It's not the lawyers, it's the families. Many of them struggle with technical issues, and almost all of them struggle with cost issues. Many inmates rely on their families to send them the money to make calls to maintain family ties. This makes that much harder.

        At a minimum, the people in jail for pretrial detention deserve access to their families and support system at a better rate than $3.75 for a 15 minute local call [prisonphonejustice.org].

        Post-conviction, you maybe have an argument for gouging. Maay-be.

        • by Nutria ( 679911 )

          At a minimum, the people in jail for pretrial detention deserve access to their families and support system at a better rate than $3.75 for a 15 minute local call.

          You're absolutely right. But it's not within the FCC's purview to regulate intra-state commerce.

          • I like the idea that the State's have some independence from federal rule, and I am also fond of the notion that the Federales have the power to intervene in some cases where the States' have their heads up their arse.

            The more checks and balances there are, the greater the probability all solutions to the proffered problem will be considered; and if we're lucky, the most extreme will be discarded.

            • by Nutria ( 679911 )

              I am also fond of the notion that the Federales have the power to intervene in some cases where the States' have their heads up their arse.

              There's always the 8th Amendment, arguing that such expensive phone calls are "excessive fines".

          • by chihowa ( 366380 )

            At a minimum, the people in jail for pretrial detention deserve access to their families and support system at a better rate than $3.75 for a 15 minute local call.

            You're absolutely right. But it's not within the FCC's purview to regulate intra-state commerce.

            So that's where they draw the line? Can't they just use the Wickard v. Filburn argument that is the basis for the entire drug prohibition framework and say that all commerce (and even the lack of commerce) affects interstate commerce, so everything is within the federal purview?

            • by Nutria ( 679911 )

              Very good point. But you'll have to ask the lawyers who argued the case for the convicts.

          • That's essentially what Angel Raich argued, but the US Supreme Court said disagreed.

            • by Nutria ( 679911 )

              The SCOTUS unanimously disagreed in Wickard v. Filburn (the stare decisis of Gonzales v. Raich), and all but one of the Justices who voted in that case were appointed by FDR, who's law it was that Filburn broke.

              So... blame the Democrats for Gonzales v. Raich.

      • This is a very valid point. There is a significant portion of a America that has family or knows someone currently or formerly incarcerated. This is dark ages "Ma Bell" antitrust behavior by these companies and I can't help but think Jeff Sessions is the Prison Industrial Complex puppet that is helping to move this along.
      • by ai4px ( 1244212 )

        Don't commit a crime????

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:53PM (#54612653)

      This isn't about calling lawyers. This is about inmates keeping in touch with their families. Many states, including California, ship inmates to out of state prisons, where it hard for their families to visit. Putting even more barriers between these inmates and their families is idiotic, since there is plenty of evidence that family bonds reduce recidivism.

      Flippant statements like "just get a virtual phone number" are not constructive. If these people had the wherewithal to do that, they wouldn't be in prison in the first place. These are dysfunctional people on the bottom rung of society. We shouldn't be trying to kick them even lower.

      The people running the prisons know damn well what they are doing. They profit from squeezing money from desperate families, and they profit even more from the high recidivism rates that keep their facilities occupied.

      • by Ichijo ( 607641 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @05:16PM (#54612809) Journal
        This is why prisons should be penalized for each ex-inmate who recividates. Let's put the profit motive to work for the benefit of everyone and not just the prisons themselves.
        • by gtall ( 79522 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @05:19PM (#54612853)

          Prisons were never set up for rehabilitating prisoners. You are barking up the wrong tree. What needs to happen are changes in sentencing laws and more dough ploughed into programs outside prison. Well, that was starting until Sessions decided to stick in his tiny wee-wee at the federal level.

          • Prisons were never set up for rehabilitating prisoners.

            And that is deeply shameful. It is only a minority of prisoners that cannot be rehabilitated under any circumstances, but what you are saying here is that prisons are not even trying; the idea never occurred. Punishment without purpose only breaks a person down and makes him (or her) less fit to come back into society.

            • And that is deeply shameful. It is only a minority of prisoners that cannot be rehabilitated under any circumstances, but what you are saying here is that prisons are not even trying; the idea never occurred. Punishment without purpose only breaks a person down and makes him (or her) less fit to come back into society.

              The major reason that convicts couldn't come back into society, I believe, is not being broken in the prison but the society itself that does not embrace/accept them back. What do you think how people would react when they know that a person who just comes back into their social was a convict? How about employers reaction when they recruit a candidate and found out that the person was a convict?

              gtall post is reasonable that the dough should be focusing on the programs outside prison, not inside.

      • If these people had the wherewithal to do that, they wouldn't be in prison in the first place.

        So what the hell *are* they doing with that laptop they stole?

        Besides, you don't need a virtual phone number. Just use a calling card: https://www.virtualprepaidminu... [virtualpre...inutes.com]

        • by BankRobberMBA ( 4918083 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @07:34PM (#54613575)

          In the Feds at least, inmates cannot call 1-800 numbers. They can only call numbers on a pre-approved list, each assigned to a particular person. Numbers that can go to multiple people introduces the risk of what they call third-party communication. That's a non-starter.

          Also, they cannot use calling cards of any type. All phone traffic for inmates is carried by the approved vendor and is charged at their rates.

          Finally, the dial pad no longer works on (at least some) inmate phones once the call is connected. Attempting to dial additional digits can result in your call being disconnected, although I think this is not standard at all prisons.

          State prisons and county jails each have their own arrangements, but many are similar to the Feds'.

          • State prisons and county jails each have their own arrangements, but many are similar to the Feds'.

            Anecdote: When I was in the Santa Clara County Jail, there was no restrictions on who I could call, although toll calls had to be collect.

          • ...I think this is not standard at all prisons.

            I've never been in prison but I used to do music fanzines that got a lot of correspondence from such, and in my experience, their is no standard prison set up for anything. They all seem to have their own rules. Some would not allow personal correspondence, only printed material. Some would not allow printed material, only personal correspondence. Some you could not send money to, only stamps. Some you could not send stamps, only money. Some you couldn't send either but you could give the prison money to pu

      • So someone needs to make a pre-configured computer with a phone handset and a plug for your internet. Something like a voip phone.
      • Flippant statements like "just get a virtual phone number" are not constructive.

        It doesn't even help. I have a friend in a federal prison. I got a phone number in the same prefix (same first six digits) and they still treat it as the long distance higher rate, despite claiming to have a lower rate for local calls. Local must only mean within their facility.

        • If you got a number that's for the same central office and you're getting charged long distance rates then my guess is that you got that number by using a cell phone or a trunk number. I imagine that local for a prison means calls to land lines within limited set of central offices based on proximity and I would expect a trunk number to only work if it's dialing over to a number that is within the "local" list.

      • "Many states, including California, ship inmates to out of state prisons, where it hard for their families to visit"

        A bunch of inmates from either Michigan or Wisconsin sued for that exact practice and won claiming unlawful estrangement.

        I bet such a thing could be tried against the prison phone companies.

    • by dougmc ( 70836 )

      That sounds good in theory.

      In practice, based on my experiences with my nephew in prison ... that may not work. At least in my nephew's case, any number he can call has to be on a very short list, and every number on that list has been vetted. They don't seem to be fond of the prisoners calling cell phones, though my wife was able to get them to allow calling hers somehow. That said, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have allowed it if it was a on a pay as you go plan. But virtual numbers like Google Voice?

  • Is it all going to the ultra-rich as they line their pockets from private prisons for profit?

    Well, is the President not black?

    There, that answers your question.

    • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

      So, what you're saying is that for 8 years, a black president did nothing and now you're blaming the new guy because it fits your particular political view.

  • What *can* FCC do? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ilsaloving ( 1534307 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:33PM (#54612509)

    Every article I come across seems to involve the FCC getting slapped down over pretty much everything, especially when it risks a corporations profits.

    If no one wants them to regulate anything. why even bother having an FCC at all at this point?

    • by SlaveToTheGrind ( 546262 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:42PM (#54612557)

      This happens to be about the FCC, but really has nothing to do with the FCC per se.

      This is about whether a federal agency can regulate purely intrastate activity. The FCC's rules capping costs for state-to-state calls stand.

      • by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:46PM (#54612593)

        >"This is about whether a federal agency can regulate purely intrastate activity. The FCC's rules capping costs for state-to-state calls stand."

        +1 Insightful

        Bingo. It has nothing to do with if we think the rates are fair or not. It has to do with the autonomy of the States. If you don't like it in your State, complain to your State, not the Fed.

        It is really, really hard for many to swallow the concept that we are are the "United States of America" and not the "Federal State of America."

        • Bingo. It has nothing to do with if we think the rates are fair or not. It has to do with the autonomy of the States. If you don't like it in your State, complain to your State, not the Fed.

          Oh, horseshit. Do you believe calls made from a VOIP phone to a number in the same state uses a different communication system than a VOIP phone to an out-of-state phone?

          The phone system is not the same as county highways, especially since the companies that run these phone systems are national.

          http://www.gtl.net/correc [gtl.net]

          • >"Do you believe calls made from a VOIP phone to a number in the same state uses a different communication system than a VOIP phone to an out-of-state phone?"

            It doesn't matter. It is still a caller from within the State calling someone else within the same state State at a State facility and being billed in the same State. It is not a Federal matter, it is a State matter.

            • It's a national company, with a national network. Profits don't stay within the state. See the commerce clause.

              • Hey, I'd be perfectly happy for this ruling to greatly limit the Interstate Commerce Clause -- if the same reasoning was applied to every other issue too. There are many, many Federal regulations -- including everything from drug prohibition to the Obamacare individual mandate -- that rely on decisions about the scope of the Interstate Commerce Clause that conflict with this one.

                • The ACA individual mandate was allowed as a tax by the Supreme Court, not under the Interstate Commerce clause.

                  I do agree about the drug laws. Nobody's ever pointed me at any part of the Constitution that says that enforcing drug laws inside a state is a Federal concern.

        • I'd have modded up, if I hadn't already dropped my load of snark around here somewhere.
        • If you phone a local prison then you'll phone an out of state one less, therefore it's an interstate commerce clause issue and subject to federal regulation. (it was even funnier when they used essentially the same reasoning to regulate drugs).
        • This is absolutely true. However, it is true because most people (younger people) place ZERO value on state to state differences in laws. Not only have walls been broken down between countries, but state to state differences in law seem absolutely ridiculous to most. Most younger people these days feel no need to stay within the state to which they are born. That is why it makes no sense to them for a law to be different from one state to the next. I happen to agree with them. Bring on the F.S.A. as f
        • It is really, really hard for many to swallow the concept that we are are the "United States of America" and not the "Federal State of America."

          Probably because 2 out of 3 times when states rights bump up against federal rights the feds win. It probably has something to do with the final verdict for the Federal Government coming from the Federal Supreme Court.

      • So, since this effectively overturns Wickard v. Filburn [wikipedia.org], the next order of business is abolishing the DEA (since the entire concept of Federal drug prohibition relies on it), right?

        • Is anyone going to try to make that argument? I bet the supremes decline to hear it, but it would definitely be interesting to see how that goes.

      • What's surprising is that they even consider it "purely intrastate". Well, not surprising actually, just sad. Protecting people from being exploited doesn't get the same constitutional exemptions that punishing people does.
        The same courts say that the federal government can arrest and imprison you for a plant you grow on your own land exclusively for your own consumption, because that means you're not buying it from someone else who potentially might get their supply from a source that might be in another
    • Well... Traditionally the FCC was about RF communications and in that capacity they are really necessary. Of course they also branched out into phone/telegraph regulations from that point and have collected legacy "communications" technologies as they developed. They took on broadcasting, Cable TV, POTS networks, Cell phones and now the internet all fall within their authority. Where I don't think the FCC's classical mission has really gone away, I do think that their legacy claim on things like the interne

    • I wish to make a random broadband RF generator for great profit. While this may affect the function of consumer wireless electronics, I assure you that people will still buy them. Ajit, can you be a pal and get rid of those pesky spectrum allocation rules?
    • by jm007 ( 746228 )
      It's not about regulation, it's about money, power and control. By keeping the FCC on a leash, there is still the option to sic them on anyone when the power to regulate is desired over the inability to regulate... whatever works in that particular context.

      Private prisons are an abomination. How we treat prisoners is an indicator of civilization. Seeing the weak and defenseless (legally speaking) as nothing more than a money resource is such an obvious aberration of what our country is supposed to be
    • by c ( 8461 )

      Every article I come across seems to involve the FCC getting slapped down over pretty much everything, especially when it risks a corporations profits.

      They seem to overstep their authority in too many cases. For example, this seems more like an FTC issue; at the institution level, this is pretty much the definition of "coercive monopoly"...

    • This is billing related. If a federal agency is to be involved, it should be the FTC.

    • by irving47 ( 73147 )

      They even got smacked down over the do not call list. For all its failures, it was a pretty popular idea. Congress had to pass a law to authorize them to make it/try to enforce it.

    • whatever the cable companies want so long as Trump's in the Whitehouse. As for why bother, well, the Cable companies need somebody to rubber stamp their large cash subsidies.

      Not saying we get rid of the FCC. It did fine for 8 years of Obama. Let's find ourselves another Obama and maybe give him a congress he (or she) can work with.
  • by BlueCoder ( 223005 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:37PM (#54612531)

    Long distance calls are as cheap as local ones so all it takes is buying a calling card or an organization willing to set up an at cost dial in card for prisoners.

    And there needs to seriously be a shamming program for administrators and bureaucrats that advocate stupid things like gauging prisoners.

    • by BankRobberMBA ( 4918083 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:52PM (#54612643)

      Prisoners typically have access to only one service provider for telephone/videophone/email services. The providers are all profiteers. They can easily provide cheaper services, but their motivation is to pursue monopoly pricing. Some inmates have had success with Google numbers, but others complain of poor sound quality.

      There used to be several number selling companies that would sell local numbers to prisoners' families (which made calls cheaper), but a lot of them went out of business when FCC capped prices on long distance calls. Maybe they'll come back now to provide long distance numbers? Probably not enough volume of business to make it worthwhile.

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot AT worf DOT net> on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @05:00PM (#54612695)

        Prisoners typically have access to only one service provider for telephone/videophone/email services. The providers are all profiteers. They can easily provide cheaper services, but their motivation is to pursue monopoly pricing.

        Of course they can provide cheaper services. A local call in most areas is FREE. And long distance is a penny or less a minute (or even free) in plenty of areas.

        Except in prison, where you can pay dollars per minute for a local call. Not even satellite phones cost that much! Hell, even cellphones at their most expensive 30 years ago were still cheaper than a prison phone call. Long distance could easily cost more than what NASA pays to call the ISS. Hell, I bet even a phone call to Mars would cost less than from prison. (And no, prisoners cannot pay for it - it's always collect).

  • So the correct answer to the problem would be to complain to the states' own legislatures, which are supposed to be more responsive to their constituents than federal organizations anyway.

    • by David_Hart ( 1184661 ) on Tuesday June 13, 2017 @04:55PM (#54612673)

      So the correct answer to the problem would be to complain to the states' own legislatures, which are supposed to be more responsive to their constituents than federal organizations anyway.

      Except that the States are also benefiting both by the creation of for-profit prison systems and the sharing of revenue from scams like this. In my opinion, a prison system should never be privatized. There is too much opportunity for the exploitation of prisoners.

      • >"Except that the States are also benefiting both by the creation"

        But that is their right and mandate....

        I agree the rates are silly and some States are doing the wrong thing and also that some private prisons should have much better oversight. But it is not the Fed's domain and the court ruled correctly (which is shocking).

  • The blurb only quotes the article and neither of which links to the decision. What did the court say that limited what the FCC can do? What was their reasoning and why did it 'leave little wiggle room'?

    The sentence makes an okay headline but without an actual article describing the decision it doesn't make any sense.

  • This is an Appeals court, not a Supreme Court ruling.

    Big difference.

  • I somehow doubt this is an issue any longer. (insert something about Ajit Pai here)
  • This is a CRIME in and of itself, and MUST be stopped! My uncle had a warrant for a traffic ticket he forgot about once. He called my mother for bail so he could get out and deal with the ticket and warrant. That 10 minute call, cost my mother 300$. Its robbery. Simple as that. A dollars worth of Phone call, in town, for 300x that amount... Only thieves and CRIMINALS do such things!
    • by guruevi ( 827432 )

      Bail is posted from police stations, not state prisons. You can make a reasonable set of calls free of charge while you're being arraigned and before you go to an actual prison, such as to call for an attorney. They can't charge you money for anything before you are convicted.

  • So what's the argument in favor of letting them gouge prisoners and their families on phone calls? This seems counterproductive to the stated purpose of a prison, reform. Their punishment if supposed to be time behind bars, not high phone bills.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Altrag ( 195300 )

      The usual argument.. "Bad government! Stop trying to protect the people we want to abuse because capitalism!"

      I mean if the prisoners don't like it, they can just go to a competing jail right? That's how it works isn't it?

  • I see a business opertunity where a company - perhaps a not-for-profit - crates a phone center in some state that takes long distance calls from Inmates and forwards them to their "loved ones". Of course this will require registration, perhaps by the inmates lawyer of family to prevent inmate scams... The cost could be kept low because of not-for-profit status, certainly it could be done for less than the Phone Company Scammers.

  • Title says "can't cap the cost of cross-state prison phone calls", the summary says "little wiggle room for advocates of price-capping, with the possible exception of the cross-state caps".

    The title should really say intrastate (or in-state) prison phone calls.

    Doesn't anybody read anymore?

  • Wouldn't this issue be a matter of antitrust laws instead of the FCC regulating things?
  • And it is extortion. I had someone in the Brevard Co, FL jail in '04, and $50 min "deposit", use it or lose it, *and* you could ONLY CALL FROM ONE PHONE NUMBER. And you had to register that phone # with the jail before hand, so they were limited in who they could call.

    And most of you are too young to remember pay by the minute phone calls, and this was long-distance pricing in the same freickin' county.

    Note: it is a documented *fact* that the more contact a prisoner has during their imprisonment, the lower

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