HRDC comment to FCC re low phone rates at Davidson County, TN jail - July 2016
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Human Rights Defense Center DEDICATED TO PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS July 15, 2016 Submitted Online Only The Honorable Tom Wheeler, Chairman Federal Communications Commission 445 12th St. S.W. Washington, DC 20554 Re: Ex Parte Submission Global Tel*Link ICS Contract and Amendment with the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (Metro). WC Docket 12-375 Dear Chairman Wheeler: The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) respectfully submits this ex parte presentation on WC Docket 12-375 regarding the contrary positions between what prison telecom industry leader Global Tel*Link (GTL) says and what it actually does. This Docket is replete with filings by Inmate Calling Service (ICS) providers, as well as the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) and its member sheriffs, alleging high costs for the provision of prison and jail telephone services; the high (but unsubstantiated) costs incurred by correctional facilities to provide phone services; and threats to discontinue phone services unless sheriffs’ departments continue to receive ICS commission kickbacks. GTL appealed the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC or the Commission) Order capping prepaid/debit ICS rates at $0.11/min. for federal and state prisons, and capping debit/prepaid rates for jails at $0.14/min. to $0.22/min. based on population level. 2 In an initial motion filed in the appeal, GTL represented that “The nature of these inmate calling services (‘ICS’) makes them more costly to provide than ordinary toll service.” 3 GTL goes on to say 1 1 Second Report and Order and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, released November 5, 2015. U.S. District Court of Appeals DC Circuit, Case No. 15-1461, filed January 27, 2016. 3 https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/10713407224982/ICS%20Litigation%20Record%207%2013%202016.pdf at 7. 2 P.O. Box 1151 Lake Worth, FL 33460 Phone: 561-360-2523 Fax: 866-735-7136 firstname.lastname@example.org Page |2 that the FCC has ignored the realities of the ICS market and “threatened ICS providers with significant losses.” 4 Of course it is the ICS providers that have created the very “market” they now complain about, by giving kickbacks to their government collaborators in exchange for monopoly contracts. However, a contract amendment negotiated between the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (Metro) and GTL, which became effective June 20, 2016, indicates that this is simply not the case. (Attachment 1) This amendment sets ICS rates for all intrastate collect, debit and prepaid/AdvancePay calls at $0.05/min., with ancillary fees capped at the amounts set forth in the FCC’s Order. Id. HRDC has long-advocated for a rate of $0.05/min., and this is evidence of the ability of both ICS providers and detention facilities – including jails – to provide phone services at that rate. The amendment also eliminates kickbacks, 5 including for video visitation services, which lowered the cost for video visitation from $14.95 for a 20-minute visit (effectively $0.75/min.) in the original contract (Attachment 2) to $10.00 for a 25-minute visit ($0.40/min.). As noted by Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall in a press release: The vast majority of inmates in our jails – and jails across the country – are in pretrial status. They have not been found guilty of any crime; therefore, they should have access to the privilege of calling loved ones regardless of their economic status. (Attachment 3) This position was confirmed by HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann, who added that abandoning the commission-based model “will go a long way towards ensuring fair and affordable phone rates so those in jail can more easily communicate with their family members and children.” (Attachment 4) Metro did the right thing for its prisoners and community by voluntarily reducing rates far below the FCC’s rate caps and eliminating kickbacks from its contract with GTL; it is well documented in this record that kickbacks and lack of competition are the primary reasons for the artificially high phone rates that plague the ICS industry. It is crystal clear that ICS providers can charge much lower rates and remain profitable absent kickbacks, and it should be noted that GTL contracted with Metro at a rate of $0.05/min., especially in light of the Fact Sheet released by the FCC yesterday concerning a proposal to increase the rate caps for both prisons and jails. 6 Metro’s jail system consists of the Criminal Justice Center with 788 beds; the Hill Detention Center with 535 beds and CDC-male with 768 beds. The FCC capped phone rates for a facility of this combined size at $0.14/min. in its Order, almost three times Metro’s new rate. 4 Id. Under the original contract (Attachment 2), Metro received a 95% commission kickback on ICS revenue with intrastate calls rated at $0.13/min. for collect and debit calls and $0.14/min. for prepaid calls. 6 FACT SHEET: Providing Affordable, Sustainable Inmate Calling Services; issued by the Federal Communications Commission on July 14, 2016. 5 Page |3 Revised rate caps under consideration that will be voted on by the Commission on August 4, 2016 would increase the maximum phone rate for a facility of this size to $0.19/min. – just under four times the rate currently in effect at Metro jails. Of course, GTL would not have entered into a contract to provide phone service at $.05/min. with no kickbacks if it could not make a profit. 7 HRDC acknowledges the Commission’s efforts to ensure that all parties to ICS services are treated in a fair and reasonable manner. However, given the fact that the NSA and its member sheriffs have produced almost no evidence of actual “costs” incurred to provide ICS, we call on the FCC to require the submission of true cost data by corrections agencies so any “addon” rates to cover costs do just that: cover actual costs. The government agencies that run this country’s detention facilities should not be allowed to continue to profit off prisoners and their families, who are among this nation’s poorest consumers. As HRDC has noted in previous filings on this Docket, there is no correlation between the kickbacks these agencies receive and the cost of providing telephone services to prisoners. Instead, ICS kickbacks are used to buy everything from food for prisoners and squad cars for deputies to computer upgrades ... and sometimes commission kickbacks simply go to the state or county’s general fund. HRDC again calls on the Commission to require all ICS providers to post their contracts (with rate and fee information), kickback data and all other payments made for these exclusive contracts on their company websites within 30 days of contract execution, and that such records be kept up to date with easy access to effective dates. We also ask that ICS providers be required to retain these documents online for at least ten years. The reality remains that no one has the resources to monitor the ICS contracts for all of the nation’s prisons and jails nor the kickbacks paid to secure those contracts. This is a case where both the NSA and ICS providers are telling the courts and the FCC one thing while knowing they are doing another. Having all the contract, rate, fee and kickback data publicly posted on their websites will ensure both transparency and the ability of the public – as well as courts and regulatory agencies – to determine the actual reality behind ICS contracts. The secrecy and lack of transparency that permeates every aspect of the ICS industry is a critical component that has allowed the current situation of consumer exploitation to both exist and persist for so long. Thank you for your time and attention in this regard. Sincerely, Paul Wright Executive Director, HRDC Attachments 7 Intrastate rates at Metro jails are set at $.05/min.; interstate rates are set at the $.25/min. (collect) and $.21/min. (debit/prepaid) caps established by the FCC’s 2013 Order. Davidson County sheriff to cut inmate phone call charges Dave Boucher, email@example.com 10:31 a.m. CDT July 11, 2016 (Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins / File / The Tennessean) In a move aimed at reducing the financial burden of jail on inmates and their families, the Davidson County Sheriff's Office plans to cut charges for all inmate phone calls from 13 cents to 5 cents per minute. Sheriff Daron Hall is set to announce the change Monday, a decision that comes amid an ongoing national dialogue about the costs of inmate phone calls and who ultimately gets the money. "The need for an inmate to communicate with family members while incarcerated is critical. Research proves a strong support system improves the likelihood of success upon release. It is important to me we do all we can to ensure those relationships continue and relieve some of the stress and burden placed on family members," Hall said in an email sent Friday and obtained by The Tennessean. Hall said the change puts Davidson County's rates for local and intrastate calls at one of the lowest in the nation. Before the change, it cost roughly 13 cents per minute for a call, said spokeswoman Karla West. There will still be some fees for the calls, but they have been reduced substantially. For a 10minute local call, to somewhere such as Dickson or another local area, the fee drops from $1.65 to 50 cents. For a 10-minute regional call, to places such as Memphis or Knoxville, the fee drops from $8.41 to 50 cents, West said. Traditionally, private companies operate the phone systems at local jails and prisons. Through that system, inmates — or, in most cases, their families — end up paying rates that include commissions that go to both the private company and the incarcerating institution. In his email, Hall notes the new phone contract does away with all previous commissions. Alex Friedmann, a former inmate who's managing editor for a prison newsletter and an advocate for inmates, and Jeannie Alexander, a former prison chaplain who runs a inmate advocacy organization, both applauded Hall's decision to cut the phone rates. "Sheriff Daron Hall is to be commended for lowering the phone rates for people held in Nashville jails — rates that are typically paid by prisoners' family members and not by the prisoners themselves, most of whom are awaiting trial and thus presumed to be innocent until proven guilty," Friedmann said in a statement. "Doing away with the commission-based model will go a long way towards ensuring fair and affordable phone rates so those in jail can more easily communicate with their family members and children." The Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling in October that capped the costs of phone calls, noting that some calls at facilities across the country ended up "ballooning to $14 per minute once inside prison walls." The new ruling limits charges for jails the size of Nashville's to 14 cents per minute. The cap for calls from prisons is 11 cents per minute. The Tennessee Department of Correction recently changed its rate to 7 cents per minute. However, Friedmann said the new rate actually makes longer calls more expensive than they used to be.