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Court Ruling Puts Cheaper Prison Calls on Hold

The FCC has been trying to rein in the cost of calls, which have been as much as $17 for a 15-minute call.

Andrew Burton / Getty

Remember that voice you heard at the beginning of the last season of Serial? “This is a Global Tel-Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed.”

Well, Global Tel-Link is a real company that handles phone calls for inmates around the country. But some say that it and other firms charge way too much, and last year, the FCC put rules in place limiting how much Global Tel and others could charge. For example, a 15-minute call used to cost up to $17, but is now capped at $3.15.

However, a federal court said on Monday that the FCC may have overstepped its bounds and has put the price caps on hold. The court did uphold rules that place caps and restrictions on additional fees that companies can charge for inmate calls.

“It’s an unfortunate development that families won’t be able to see the reduction in cost that would have come with rates well below the interim rate cap,” said Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative, adding, “It’s still a step forward from where we were last year, because now the FCC’s interim interstate rate caps also apply to in-state rates, which make up the majority of calls.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has led the push for the price caps, issued a statement with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, holding out hope the court will eventually uphold the price caps.

“While we regret that relief from high inmate calling rates will be delayed for struggling families and their 2.7 million children trying to stay in touch with a loved one, we are gratified that costly and burdensome ancillary charges will come to an end,” Clyburn and Wheeler said in a joint statement. “These fees can increase the cost to consumers of a call by nearly 40 percent, compounding the burden of rates that are too high.”

Unlike most phone customers, inmates have no choice of phone providers. Typically, each jail or prison awards a contract to a sole provider that can charge not just a calling charge but other fees, such as for loading or reloading an account.

Clyburn and Wheeler said they hope the court will eventually give the okay to the rate caps as well. “We look forward to the day when we stop erecting barriers to communication and have a system where all rates and fees paid by friends and family to stay in touch with their loved ones in jail or prison will be just, fair and reasonable,” Clyburn and Wheeler said.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was the third vote in favor of the FCC’s rules, also held out hope that inmate phone rates can be brought down. “It is going to take time to bend this one toward justice,” she said in a tweet. “A setback in the courts today, but work will continue.”

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who has opposed the agency’s intervention, praised the court’s action.

“Last October, I warned the agency that these regulations were unlawful,” Pai said in a statement. “The FCC should have learned its lesson the first time around, in 2013. Then, too, I warned the agency that its regulations were fatally flawed — and then, too, the D.C. Circuit blocked those regulations.”

Brian Oliver, the CEO of Global Tel-Link parent GTL, said that local, not national rules are what is needed.

“While the FCC’s public policy goals have merit, their approach has … failed to address fundamental market issues or recognize their jurisdictional limits,” Oliver said in a statement.

Pai, who has been a vocal opponent of many FCC actions taken by the Democratic majority, used the court ruling as an opportunity to speak out on his broader disagreement with the commission’s activities.

“This case captures well how the FCC in recent years has done business,” Pai said. “Political expedience trumps everything else; the rule of law is ridiculed rather than respected; and bipartisan compromise is rejected in favor of a party-line vote. Thankfully, we can still count on the federal courts to rebuke an agency untethered to the rule of law.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.