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State likes ring of no inmate-calls cost cap

By Jeannie Roberts

This article was originally published June 18, 2017 at 3:48 a.m. Updated June 18, 2017 at 3:48 a.m.

Dina Tyler, a Community Correction Department deputy director

State officials are breathing a sigh of relief after a federal appeals court ruled last week that the Federal Communications Commission overstepped its authority in 2015 when it slashed and capped inmate telephone rates, effectively sapping millions of dollars from prison and jail budgets across the state and nation.

The 2-1 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stemmed from a lawsuit filed two years ago by nine attorneys general, including Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who fought the 2015 FCC edict that inmate telephone rates be capped at no more than 11 cents per minute or $1.65 per 15 minutes for all local and long-distance calls.

"This order from the FCC was nothing less than a power grab that I am pleased to see much of invalidated," Rutledge said. "The FCC failed to consider numerous issues including costs that would have directly impacted the local budgets of cities and counties across Arkansas."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he understands that a telephone conversation between inmates and their loved ones is treasured time. But he said it is not the role of the FCC to set a limit on what communications providers charge for the privilege.

"The court rightly returned the pricing decision to the free market, and turned negotiations over to the states and private industry," Hutchinson said. "This decision does not impinge on an inmate's access to phones; it simply requires a fair balance between cost and access."

The Department of Correction receives about $3 million a year in commissions from inmates' telephone usage from provider Securus Technologies.

Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley declined to comment.

The Community Correction Department is paid a 79 percent commission on all in-state inmate telephone calls, which generates about $350,000 annually.

"We're hopeful that it may increase to $500,000 per year," said Dina Tyler, a Community Correction Department deputy director. "There is no other use for this money than to make life better for the inmates."

For both departments, the telephone revenue is used for inmate programs and building improvements. The $500,000 it took to retrofit the Crittenden County Hospital in West Memphis into the new East Central Arkansas Community Correction Center was supplied by inmate telephone revenue.

"Obviously we want to provide an inmate phone system, but to do that we have to have an agreement with the provider where we both come out a little ahead," Tyler said. "It means our inmate population comes out a little ahead. Money goes back into the system to make the standard of living better."

At 12 cents per minute and a $3 connection fee, rates in the Arkansas prison system are much lower than the national average of nearly $3 for a 15-minute, in-state phone call plus connection fees. Some states, such as Minnesota, charge as much as $6.45 for a 15-minute inmate call. About 60,000 in-state calls are made by state prisoners each year.

Tyler said the Board of Corrections and agency leaders feel good about the rates they offer inmates' loved ones because they are now among the lowest in the nation. Before 2006, however, the rates were among the highest nationally at $6.60 for a 15-minute call.

Protests by prison advocates and the threat of legislative action prompted the Board of Corrections to lower the rate in 2007 to $4.80 per 15-minute call and eliminate several processing fees. The rates continued to fall each time the board negotiated a new contract.

"We wanted to work with the families. We understand," Tyler said. "One of our goals is to help relationships with families stay strong while someone is locked up."

Before there were banks of telephones for inmates to use, prisoners had to petition to use the warden's phone, and calls were usually limited to emergencies-only.

"It's not like having a phone at home," Tyler said, adding that a prison phone system must be equipped for monitoring and recording. "We have to be able to pay for that equipment."

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a prepared statement that the court's decision was "deeply disappointing, not just for me and the many advocates who have fought for more than a decade to bring about much needed reform." She called it a "sad day" for the more than 2.7 million children in the nation with at least one incarcerated parent.

"But the families who have experienced the pain, anguish and financial burden of trying to communicate with a loved one in jail or prison are still counting on us, so we will press on," Clyburn said. "I remain committed to doing everything I can, from working with my colleagues at the Commission to supporting the efforts of Congress and those in the states, to bring relief to millions who continue to suffer from the greatest form of regulatory injustice I have seen in my 18 years as a regulator in the communications space."

In February, right after Ajit Pai was appointed by President Donald Trump as chairman of the FCC, the organization's lawyers told the court that the commission would no longer defend the need to limit fees for the prisoner's in-state calls. As a commissioner in 2015, Pai had voted against the measure to cap the rates.

"The D.C. Circuit agreed with my position that the FCC exceeded its authority when it attempted to impose rate caps on intrastate calls made by inmates," Pai said in a prepared statement. "Looking ahead, I plan to work with my colleagues at the Commission, Congress, and all stakeholders to address the problem of high inmate calling rates in a lawful manner."

State Desk on 06/18/2017

Print Headline: State likes ring of no inmate-calls cost cap

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NRC says... June 18, 2017 at 10:02 p.m.

These millions are not coming from the convicts. The State of Arkansas is proudly demanding millions in overcharges from the POOR FAMILIES OF CONVICTS in prison before allowing family to speak to their incarcerated loved ones. Old Mama will just have to pay up dearly if she wants to speak to her loser son in prison. It is a shame and a disgrace to take advantage of the poor like this.

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Zoesophie says... June 19, 2017 at 8:17 a.m.

The cost is actually higher as well.... It's closer to like $3.12 to connect and then on top of connection it is $0.15/minute. A 30 minute call costs $7.62 and come from the inmates' families. It is taking money from those already suffering. Sad part is a video visitation is $5 for 30 minutes, but this requires equipment many families cannot afford.

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