Monday, September 16, 2013

FCC Rule to Put a Stop to Private Companies Fleecing Jail Inmates Making Phone Calls

During his tenure, I heard a lot of complaints with how Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson provided oversight (or failed to do so) over Jail #2, the facility on Washington Street run by Corrections Corporation of America.  One of those complaints involved his signing a contract with a private company to provide high-priced phone service for inmates detained at that facility.  In
Former Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson
exchange for a huge payment into the commissary fund, money that Sheriff Anderson then used for any purpose he wanted often in direct violation of an Indiana statute limiting a sheriff's use of commissary money (see four stories below), a private company received a lucrative contract worth millions to charge inmates for overpriced local phone calls. Of course, that money didn't appear out of thin air.  It represents money that jail inmates, who often couldn't even afford bail pending trial, had to pay to keep in touch with loved ones or to contact legal counsel.

Indypolitics reports that the Federal Communications Commission has passed a rule to stop the practice..  While the Indpolitics' spin is that it is a change costing jails "thousands" actually it is the private companies that provide the phone service that is getting hit hard.  Yep, the days of their being able to fleece inmates to make millions of dollars off people who are incarcerated appears to be over:
According to the FCC’s website the new rules require that all interstate inmate calling rates, including ancillary charges, be based on the cost of providing the inmate calling service.
The rules also adopt an interim rate cap of $0.21 per minute for debit and pre-paid calls and $0.25 per minute for collect calls, dramatically decreasing rates of over $17 for a 15-minute call to no more than $3.75 or $3.15 a call. 
The FCC also presumes that rates of $0.12 per minute for debit and prepaid calls ($1.80 for a 15-minute call) and $0.14 cents per minute for collect calls ($2.10 for a 15-minute call) are just, reasonable and cost-based (safe-harbor rates).
In Marion County a collect call from the jail can... run anywhere from $2-$3 per minute for inmates....
The FCC press release is below:
The Federal Communications Commission today took long-overdue steps to ensure that the rates for interstate long-distance calls made by prison inmates are just, reasonable and fair.

Studies make clear that inmates who maintain contact with family and community while in prison have reduced rate of recidivism and are more likely to become productive citizens upon their release.

Lower rates of recidivism also benefit society by reducing crime, the need for additional prisons, and other costs.

In addition, an estimated 2.7 million children would benefit from increased communication with an incarcerated parent. Many of these children face challenges that are manifested in higher rates of truancy, homelessness, depression and other ills

But the exorbitant price of interstate long-distance calls from correctional facilities today actuallydiscourages such communication because it is too expensive (over $17 for one 15-minute call), particularly for families facing economic hardship. The Order takes immediate action to change this and provide an affordable means to encourage such communication.

The Commission's reforms adopt a simple and balanced approach that protects security and public safety needs, ensures providers receive fair compensation while providing reasonable rates to consumers as follows:

Requires that all interstate inmate calling rates, including ancillary charges, be based on the cost of providing the inmate calling service

Provides immediate relief to exorbitant rates:

Adopts an interim rate cap of $0.21 per minute for debit and pre-paid calls and $0.25 per minute for collect calls, dramatically decreasing rates of over $17 for a 15-minute call to no more than $3.75 or $3.15 a call

Presumes that rates of $0.12 per minute for debit and prepaid calls ($1.80 for a 15-minute call) and $0.14 cents per minute for collect calls ($2.10 for a 15-minute call) are just, reasonable and cost-based (safe-harbor rates)

These rates include the costs of modern security features such as advanced mechanisms that block calls to victims, witnesses, prosecutors and other prohibited parties; biometric caller verification; real-time recording systems; and monitoring to prevent evasion of restrictions on call-forwarding or three-way calling

Concludes that "site commissions" payments from providers to correctional facilities may not be included in any interstate rate or charge

Clarifies that inmates or their loved ones who use Telecommunications Relay Services because of hearing and speech disabilities may not be charged higher rates

Requires a mandatory data collection, annual certification requirement, and enforcement provisions to ensure compliance with this Order

Seeks comment on reforming rates and practices affecting calls within a state

Seeks comment on fostering competition to reduce rates

Building on state reforms, the Commission's action addresses a petition filed nearly a decade ago by Martha Wright, a Washington, D.C. grandmother who sought relief from exorbitant inmate calling rates.

Since then, tens of thousands have urged the FCC to make it possible for them to stay in touch with loved ones in jail.
Unfortunately the rule lumps inmates at jails and prisons together, when in fact they are quite different.  In jail, most of the people haven't been convicted yet and they're just being held for trial.  In prisons the people have been convicted.  I find it most offensive that a private company was allowed to fleece inmates at Jail #2, many of which were there simply because they couldn't afford the bail.

Also at Jail #2, no in person visitation is allowed.  Only visitation through a video screen.   You actually get more opportunities to visit a loved one in a state prison than you do at Jail #2, which again is run by CCA, a private corrections company.

Note:  Stories detailing the abuse of the commissary fund by former Sheriff Frank Anderson are detailed below:

Friday, September 14, 2012, Commissary Payments to Former Sheriffs and Sheriff's Law Firm Violate Indiana Law

Thursday, October 22, 2009,The Jail Commissary Fund, Part I: Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson Violates Indiana Law to Pay Private Law Firm

Monday, October 26, 2009, The Jail Commissary Fund, Part II: Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson Violates Indiana Law to Pay Accounting and PR Firm Out of Jail Commissary Fund

Wednesday, October 28, 2009, The Jail Commissary Fund, Part III: Need Money to Buy Plaques or Attend a Fundraiser? Just Dip Into the Jail Commissary Fund

4 comments:

stevelaudig@gmail.com said...

Larry Reuben, Rich Waples and I tried to put a stop to this more than a decade ago. But the court of Appeals wouldn't do the right thing, they did the state thing.

Unigov said...

Step 1) Make even private use of harmless drugs illegal. In spite of the necessity of the 18th amendment when booze was outlawed. In spite of the 14th amendment against curtailing privileges and immunities.

Step 2) Lock up violators.

Step 3) Profit ! LEO and prison operators and construction companies, that is.

Bob Cardwell said...

I have known of this problem for twenty years. I told dozens of people who either didn't believe it or didn't care.

It would be wonderful if the feds would investigate where that money has gone for the past twenty years and who benefited. Then the crooks along with the corp hounds who rigged this should be tried, convicted, and sent to prison.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Steve, I believe you litigated the issue of whether the fees could be charged. There was another legal issue...whether those fees should be deposited into the Sheriff's commissary account. I don't know of any legal authority for that. The problem was that the Sheriff did not follow the statute with respect to commissary spending. (I'm not sure any Marion County Sheriff has but I haven't looked at others besides Anderson.) It was money spent outside the normal budget process. Again, I don't know the legal theory for that money kicked back by the vendor to be placed into the commissary fund.