Court Blocks FCC Bid to Lower Prison Phone Rates

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn testifies before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during an FCC oversight hearing on March 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. FCC members warned that a planned 2014 incentive auction of broadcast TV spectrum for mobile broadband use could encounter setbacks.    (National Journal)

A federal court on Monday blocked portions of the Federal Communications Commission's effort to lower the rates that prisoners and their families pay for phone calls.

The decision is a setback to Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who made prison call reform her top priority during her six months as acting chairwoman last year.

The three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court put portions of the FCC's prison call order on hold while it considers the lawsuit.

Clyburn has argued that phone companies are gouging prisoners and their families, who have no other option for keeping in touch.

"Too often, families are forced to choose between spending scarce money to stay in touch with loved ones or covering life's basic necessities," she said at an emotional meeting last August when the FCC approved the action.

Clyburn argued that cutting inmates off from their families and communities makes them more likely to commit new offenses.

Inmates must pay as much as $17 for a 15-minute phone call, according to the FCC, and many must pay additional fees for every call they place. The FCC order requires companies to justify the rates they charge inmates.

The order also caps rates at 21 cents per minute for prepaid calls and 25 cents per minute for collect calls.

But companies that provide phones services to prisons sued the FCC, claiming the agency overstepped its authority, failed to follow proper administrative procedure, and violated their constitutional rights.

The court blocked the FCC requirement that companies justify their costs, but the overall caps will remain in place.

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai voted against the prison call order in August, warning that the commission was on weak legal ground.

In a joint statement, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Clyburn said they are pleased that the rate caps will go into effect next month.

"These families have been forced to pay exorbitant rates for far too long," the Democratic officials said.  

"Although we are disappointed that the court granted a partial stay on other aspects of the Inmate Calling Services Order, we look forward to a hearing on the merits soon, and to adopting further reforms quickly."