from the man-of-the-people dept
For decades, inmate calling service (ICS) telcos have charged inmates and their families upwards of $14 per minute for phone calls without anybody giving much of a damn. Because these folks are in prison, and as we all know everybody in prison is always guilty, drumming up sympathy to convert into political momentum had proven difficult. But after decades of activism, the FCC intervened in 2013 and again in 2015, voting to cap the amount companies can charge the incarcerated for intrastate phone calls. This resulted in a firestorm of complaints from these companies, which not only get to rip off inmates, but have all too cozy and often not particularly legal relationships with law enforcement.
One of the more vocal ICS outfits, Securus, quickly sued the FCC, going so far at one point as to claim that inmates would riot if the company wasn’t allowed to continue overcharging inmates and their families. Securus, Global Tel*Link and other providers challenged the FCC’s intrastate rate caps in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, claiming the agency lacked the adequate authority to set caps and that the rates were too low. And for the last several years, the FCC had been working to defend its actions in court.
That all changed last month, when Donald Trump pegged Ajit Pai to head the FCC. Pai and former Commissioner Mike O’Rielly had consistently voted against defending inmates from monopoly overcharging. And just days after giving a speech in which he professed his selfless dedication to closing the digital divide, Pai effectively decided to pull the rug out from underneath FCC Deputy General Counsel David Gossett, who had been defending the FCC’s action in court. In a brief filed by Gossett last week (pdf), he notes that he was ordered to no longer defend the FCC’s intrastate calling cap:
“As a result of these changes in membership, the two Commissioners who dissented from the Order under review—on the grounds that, in specific respects, it exceeds the agency’s lawful authority—now comprise a majority of the Commission,” Gossett wrote. Gossett is thus no longer authorized to defend the FCC’s previous contention that it “has the authority to cap intrastate rates for inmate calling services” and cannot defend the FCC’s assertion that it “lawfully considered industry-wide averages in setting the rate caps contained in the Order,” he wrote.”
Despite Pai suddenly undermining the agency’s own lawyers, all is not lost quite yet:
“Gossett said he will continue to defend other parts of the commission’s October 2015 order, which also lowered the price of interstate calls, those that cross state lines. Despite the FCC’s various losses, a 2013 decision to set interim rate caps of 21¢ to 25¢ per minute for interstate calls has survived court challenges…The FCC’s decision to stop defending the full order hurts the case for maintaining rate caps on intrastate calls in which both parties are in the same state, but it doesn’t completely kill the case. The FCC is ceding 10 minutes of its allotted argument time to attorney Andrew Schwartzman, who is defending the rate caps on behalf of prisoners’ rights groups.”
It’s worth reiterating that voice services these days cost very little to actually provide. Also keep in mind that Securus and other such companies are part of a dangerously cozy and captive market, where prisons get paid upwards of $460 million annually in “concession fees” (read: kickbacks) to score exclusive, lucrative prison contracts. In this comically absurd environment, the service pricing and quality are just about what you’d expect. Government oversight of these businesses have been virtually non-existent, in part thanks to accusations that these companies have allowed some law enforcement to monitor what should be privileged attorney client communications.
The fact that making it easier to rip off inmates was new boss Pai’s first move in office should tell you plenty about just how far his dedication to “closing the digital divide” is going to go. That’s before you realize that Pai’s other early actions have involved preventing 9 pre-approved ISPs from helping the poor, killing an FCC plan to bring competition and cheaper rates to the cable box, and killing all FCC Net neutrality enforcement moving forward. With friends like these…