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The FCC can’t cap the cost of in-state prison phone calls, court rules

Photo by James Bareham / 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.

“We’re profoundly disappointed,” says Lee Petro, who represented the Wright Petitioners, a group of families litigating for the rate caps. “Families lose, privately owned [inmate calling service] providers will win.”

The decision could end the years-long battle over the caps, which came to a head in a bizarre 11th-hour change from the Trump Administration. After current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was appointed to lead the commission, the agency did not move to revoke the rules, but did stop defending them in court, leaving independent intervenors to continue the fight.

Pai has long opposed the rules, and lauded the court’s decision in a statement. “Today, the DC 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. “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.”

It’s unclear if the decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court. Lee says all options are being reviewed.

Correction, 4:05PM: An earlier headline said the ruling applied to cross-state calls. It applies to in-state calls.