By Yejin Jang
NACo Associate Legislative Director

A new FCC order caps the rate jails and other correctional facilities may charge inmates for interstate phone calls. County jails that offer interstate inmate calling services (ICS) must comply with the order when it becomes effective (90 days after publication in the Federal Register). The order, released Sept. 26, establishes an interim safe harbor rate of 12 cents per minute for debit and prepaid interstate ICS calls, and 14 cents per minute for collect interstate ICS calls.

An ICS rate that falls at or below the safe harbor levels will be treated as lawful, meaning the provider will not be subject to issuing refunds to inmates.

The order also sets upper limits to the rates that can be charged for similar interstate calls: 21 cents per minute for debit and prepaid interstate calls, and 25 cents per minute for collect interstate calls. The rates are intended to be temporary until the commission completes a data analysis in order to decide permanent rate levels.

In addition to establishing safe harbor rates and rate caps, the order requires that interstate ICS rates be cost-based. The order clarifies which costs may be considered in determining a “just, reasonable, and fair” rate. Site commission payments are not a part of the cost in providing ICS and therefore not compensable in interstate ICS rates. The order does not ban site commissions but does encourage states to “eliminate site commissions, adopt rate caps, disallow or reduce per-call charges, or take other steps to reform ICS rates.” Security features associated with the provision of ICS are a compensable cost recoverable through ICS rates.

The interstate order is not expected to significantly affect jails, according to Estéban Gonzalez, chief custody deputy, Onondaga County, N.Y. Sheriff’s Office and president of the American Jail Association. “The rate caps should not have a massive impact,” he said, explaining that, typically, pre-sentenced jail inmates make local, intrastate calls, not interstate calls. 

For intrastate calls, though, it’s another matter. “The likelihood that rate caps will be established for intrastate calls is causing heads to pop up and ears turning in local jails,” he added.

For intrastate calls, the commission is seeking additional information through its rulemaking process. As stated in the rulemaking notice, the commission “tentatively concludes” that “competition and market forces have failed to ensure just, reasonable, and fair interstate ICS rates, and, for the same reasons, we (FCC) tentatively conclude that the same failure has occurred for intrastate ICS rates as well.” The FCC seeks comment on this analysis; counties are urged to participate.

These and other requirements such as mandatory data collection will become effective 90 days after the order is published in the Federal Register. Publication in the Federal Register has not occurred at the time of this writing.

Counties that wish to comment on intrastate calling rates are encouraged to examine their ICS rates and justifications. Comments should be sent via email to Yejin Jang, Counties may also submit their comments online at the FCC site.

In July, NACo’s Board of Directors adopted a resolution supporting the ability of county jails to recover the cost of providing inmate calling systems. NACo also supports providing a cost model that recognizes the difference between prisons and county jails.