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Studies show inmates who stay in contact with their families while incarcerated have lower recidivism rates.

Appeals Court Tosses FCC Rate Controls on Most Prison Calls

A federal appeals court has ruled the FCC lacked legal authority to impose rate limits on intrastate calls to inmates

Advocates of government action on lowering phone rates for calls to prison and jail inmates were handed a major setback June 13 when three-judge panel of a Washington, D.C. federal appeals court ruled the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lacked legal authority to impose rate limits on intrastate calls to inmates.

In October 2015, the agency – then under Democratic control – voted 3-2 along party lines to issue rules blocking state prisons or local jails from charging inmates more than 11 cents per minute on local and long-distance calls. The new rules also incorporated a variety of changes, including caps or bans on a host of other charges, such as for video and other technically advanced services. About 80 percent of inmate calls are intrastate.

A coalition of inmates, their families, and other activists supported the agency’s action, and some even argued for farther-reaching steps, arguing that the high expense of inmate calls interferes with keeping ties with their families and communities. Studies show inmates who stay in contact with their families while incarcerated have lower recidivism rates.

In 2016, companies providing inmate calling services filed a challenge to the new FCC rules in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., as did a group of eight states. Both groups argued many of the regulations exceeded the agency’s authority.

Certain parts of the FCC rules drew challenges from one group or the other. For example, the states challenging the rules said the low FCC-set cap on intrastate call rates would keep state prisons and local jails from recovering their costs for security-related services and technology updates needed for inmate phone systems. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners also opposed the FCC rules as exceeding the agency’s authority.

Earlier this year, while reviewing the legal challenges, the appellate court twice froze large sections of the rules, including the intrastate rate cap. After the Trump administration took control, the FCC’s new chairman – who had been one of the two dissenting agency members when the rules were adopted – announced the FCC would stop defending the rule in court. He pledged he’d work on relief from expensive prison and jail phone rates, but “in a lawful manner.” It was left to a variety of intervening advocates to defend the FCC rules.

But on June 13, the three-judge panel handed down a 2-1 decision knocking down the intrastate rate cap. Writing for the majority, Judge Harry Edwards held the FCC had misinterpreted the Telecommunications Act, as well as earlier decisions by the agency and courts. The appeals court also dismissed the way the FCC rules calculated industry cost data, saying it was arbitrary and capricious, lacked justification in the rulemaking record, and was unsupported “by reasoned decisionmaking.”

The court also found the FCC exceeded its authority in imposing reporting requirements on video visitation communications. While sending a few issues back to the agency for further work, the decision likely means the end – for the time being – of the effort to impose federal regulations on most phone calls to jail and prison inmates.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington PostNew York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis, a writer currently incarcerated at FCC Petersburg (Medium), is an impassioned and active prison education advocate, a legal commentator, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and prison law articles. While living in federal prison at various security levels, retaliations for his activism have earned him long stretches in solitary, or “the hole.”

While in prison, he has earned numerous academic, legal, and ministerial credentials. Christopher is very knowledgeable about prison-related legal issues, prison policy, federal regulations, and case law. He is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014) and thePrison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016).

The Federal Prison Handbook is an IndieReader Discovery Awards winner.

A regularly featured contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Prison Legal News, the nation’s most prominent prison law publication, Christopher has enjoyed significant media exposure through appearances with the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Vice.com, Salon.com, In These Times, The Jeff McArthur Show, The Simi Sara Show,TheCommentary.ca, 88.9 WERS’ award-winning “You Are Here” radio segment, and The Examiner.

Other articles and book reviews appeared in The New York Journal of Books, the Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, Midwest Book Review, Basil and Spice, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, AND Magazine, Truth-Out.org, Rain Taxi, and the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, with content syndicated by the Associated Press, Google News, and Yahoo News.

He established three websites: PrisonEducation.com, PrisonerResource.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com, and was a former editor of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. In 2011, his fiction won two PEN American Center Prison Writing Awards for a screenplay and a short story. He taught a popular course on writing and publishing to over 100 fellow prisoners.

Today Christopher is successfully working on a Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Business/Law) from Adams State University. Following his 2016 graduation, he plans on attending Adams State University’s MBA program. He regularly advises fellow prisoners and prison consultants about legal issues and federal regulations governing the Federal Bureau of Prisons operations. Upon release he plans to attend law school and become a federal criminal defense attorney.

Christopher will not allow incarceration to waste his years or halt the progress of his life. He began his prison terms as a confused kid who made poor decisions but is today determined to create a better life. “We can’t let the past define us,” he says. “We have to do something today to make tomorrow what we want it to be.”

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