Oklahoma charged inmates $3 per call until the Federal Communications Commission capped the rates at 20 cents per minute. The state says the charges are justified to prevent inmate crimes. Critics say that with higher rates, inmates must decide between food and phone calls.
A federal court has ruled that states can set their own rates for in-state phone calls from behind bars. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., struck down parts of a Federal Communications Commission order that capped how much money prisoners pay to make calls, The Oklahoman reports. In 2015, the FCC ordered that in-state calls could not cost more than 49 cents per minute, depending on the size of the facility. The court struck down the order because states have the authority to regulate in-state calls. The FCC’s rate caps on interstate calls remain in place. Under the FCC’s rule, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections charges 20 cents per minute; before the regulation, inmates were charged $3 per call.
Attorney General Mike Hunter called the court’s ruling a major victory. By setting its own rates, he said, the state will boost Corrections Department revenue by about $2 million per year and by $375,000 for the Oklahoma County Sheriff. The money, he said, is necessary to maintain a monitored phone service to prevent witness and judge intimidation, drug smuggling and organized gang activity. Oklahoma brought the lawsuit against the FCC in 2015 after the agency implemented nationwide rate caps. Eight states joined the lawsuit. Prisoner advocacy groups have criticized high calling rates in the past and looked to the FCC for regulation. Kristen Harlin of the United Methodist Church of Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, said inmates and their families often have to decide between food and phone calls. “A lot of people don’t even use the phones for this reason,” said Harlin. “To make a profit on people in prison already struggling to make it instead of offering rehabilitation programs is absurd.”