POLITICS
02/10/2016 11:39 am ET

Someone Wrote A Sketchy Guide For Evading New Rules On Prison Phone Costs

"The document is troubling because it encourages correctional authorities to adopt new taxes to be imposed on families," a lawyer for prisoners' families says.
FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said new rules on prison phone services "will finally bring relief to the 2.7 million ch
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn said new rules on prison phone services "will finally bring relief to the 2.7 million children who just want to hear their parents’ voice."

WASHINGTON -- Someone has a clever plan -- outlined in a mysterious, unsigned document -- to help prisons and jails evade Obama administration regulations aimed at stopping prison phone companies from charging inmates and their families hundreds of dollars per month for basic calling services.

Major prison phone companies didn't comment or said they weren't involved in writing the document, obtained by an attorney who represents a group of inmates' families. But the attorney is concerned enough that he has asked regulators to take a look.

Prison administrators and revenue-starved local governments often select prison phone companies based on how much money, collected from the high-cost calls prisoners and their families pay for, the companies offer the prisons in what the industry calls commissions -- and prisoner advocates call kickbacks. The contracts are generally exclusive and the market is, by definition, captive. Prison phone companies and the governments that hire them both profit.

Last October, the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to limit the price of prison phone calls to 11 cents a minute in state and federal prisons, cap certain types of fees and formally discourage commissions to prisons. The FCC, however, stopped short of banning them.

The anonymous document that recently came to light lays out a straightforward way to get around this FCC order: pretend that commissions don’t exist, charge prisoners and their families a whole new set of fees and call them something else.

“The terms ‘site commission’ and ‘commission’ must never be used in any context or in any forum,” the document explains. Instead, the document recommends getting state or local governments to pass laws allowing prison phone companies to charge new fees to replace commissions. These companies, the document notes, should avoid being present at relevant government meetings.

Prisoners' family members worry that the document seems intended for prisons, jails and local governments. "The document is troubling because it encourages correctional authorities to adopt new taxes to be imposed on families," said Lee Petro, the attorney for a group of families known as the Wright petitioners who are petitioning the FCC. The group is named for Martha Wright-Reed, a woman with an incarcerated grandson who raised the issue of high-cost prison phone calls and has since passed away.

Petro submitted the document to the FCC last week for its consideration, and wouldn't comment on where he got it. Its unknown author or authors seem to understand that charging prisoners and their families a whole new set of fees won’t thrill advocates and regulators. “Don’t be greedy! We do not want public activists and the FCC targeting facilities for collecting excessive mandatory fees," the document says. It's not clear whether any prisons or jails are implementing the recommendations in the three-page missive.

Three prison phone providers -- Global Tel Link, CenturyLink and Legacy Inmate Communications -- said they had no role in authoring the document. Bill Pope, CEO of prison phone company NCIC, also said his company did not write the letter. He speculated that it was “likely one of the companies that is appealing [the FCC] ruling."

The companies challenging various aspects of the order are CenturyLink, Global Tel Link, Securus and Telmate. Securus did not respond to a request for comment on whether the company created the mysterious document. Praeses, a consulting company that Securus accused this week of contradicting FCC rules, did not respond to comment by deadline. Jeff Hansen, chief marketing officer for Telmate, said that "due to the nature of litigation, we have no comment on this matter at this time."

Local authorities may already be trying to think of ways to get high payments without calling them commissions, petitioners suggest. Last month, the county commission in Baldwin County, Alabama, requested bids for inmate telephone and video services and said it would award the contract to the vendor best able to provide services "at the highest cost recovery rate" -- payable to Baldwin County.

The Wright petitioners suggest that Baldwin County's "cost recovery rate" could be a commission by another name. Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack told The Huffington Post that the county developed and advertised its bid services "under the most current guidelines." The FCC's new rules on prison phone costs are not scheduled to take effect until later this year.

The FCC declined to comment on the document. It's not clear what, if any, action the agency will take, particularly since the new rules aren't in effect yet. But last November, Petro sent a different letter to the agency, accusing Securus of encouraging its customers to add a mandatory fee.

In response, a FCC staffer said the statements in the letter Securus "apparently sent to one or more customers" were "inaccurate and misleading," and warned the company that the agency could take enforcement action if it observed price gouging.

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