Securus Seeks Waiver of Inmate Calling Services Per-Minute Requirement
December 3, 2021 | by Andrew Regitsky
Inmates have always had issues communicating with their friends and family by phone. They are typically poor but must (usually) deal with a monopoly provider free to charge them prices well above cost. It's been a recognized problem for years in our industry. In May, the FCC tried to do something about it. In a Third Report and Order (Order) in Docket 21-60, the Commission mandated for inmate calling services, companies may assess per-minute charges only. Moreover, the FCC lowered the interim rate caps on calls to $0.12 per minute for all prisons and $0.14 for jails with average daily populations of 1,000 or more thereby providing financial relief to the vast majority of incarcerated people. It also established caps on international calling services rates for the first time at all prison and jail facilities.
In addition, the agency eliminated a separate higher rate cap for interstate collect calls, reformed the ancillary charge rules for third-party financial transaction fees, and adopted a new mandatory data collection to gather data to set permanent rates.
While this has certainly helped many inmates, Securus Technologies, a prison communications company believes more can be done. Securus began a pilot subscription plan program for inmates making intrastate calls in six facilities in December 2020 and offers the plan now to at least two additional facilities.
These programs allow incarcerated persons and their families to purchase a set number of calls per month much like consumers pay for commercial telephone services. To remain compliant with the Commission’s per-minute rate rules for interstate calls, Securus limits participation in its subscription plans to calls to in-state numbers and has instituted the plans in states that do not mandate per-minute rates for in-state calls. (Securus Technologies Petition for Waiver, Docket 12-375, filed August 30, 2021, at pp. 1-2).
In addition to requiring per-minute charges, the FCC’s Order requires providers to determine the jurisdiction of a call by its physical end points and treat indeterminate calls as interstate. This requirement could fatally impact the Securus program.
In short, the problem is that, despite informing participants that the plan is limited to in-state calls and is only available for calls to in-state numbers, Securus cannot definitively determine if a call is intrastate when a subscription plan call is made. Many of the calls using the subscription service are made to wireless phones whose exact physical location is difficult to determine. Securus thus is unable to definitively confirm that a call is intrastate. Per the Commission’s requirements, Securus must treat potentially in-state but indeterminate calls as interstate calls whose rates are limited to per-minute charges, jeopardizing the development and availability of flat-rate subscription plans for multiple calls. (Id., at p. 2).
Securus believes its subscription program is worth continuing and easily adopted by other providers. That’s because the initial results from its pilot subscription program indicate that the per-minute effective rate is well below the Commission’s interim rates caps for intrastate inmate calls. Therefore, on August 30, 2021, Securus filed for a waiver of the Commission’s per-minute requirement rules to allow its program to continue.
Before the FCC had the opportunity to respond to the waiver request, Worth Rises filed a response on October 14, 2021. Worth Rises is a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to “dismantle the prison system.” According to the Commission,
Worth Rises argues that “Securus has not provided sufficient data in its waiver request for the Commission to determine the true per-minute rate range offered through its subscription packages and whether they generally conform to the Commission’s rate caps.” Worth Rises identifies four principal concerns with Securus’s subscription plans as described in the Petition—call length and usage data, dropped calls, unused calls, and renewals. Worth Rises suggests that the Commission should also require additional information from Securus before considering the waiver, including information on the policies related to the subscription programs and the “cost basis of the pilot subscription packages by pilot location.” Worth Rises requests that if the Commission grants the Petition, it should require Securus to base its subscription plans on minutes rather than calls, “limit Securus to selling packages of usage (e.g., 250 minutes) or time (e.g., unlimited monthly), but not both,” and “prevent automatic subscription renewals or require easily accessible termination options.” (FCC November 12, 2021, News Release, at pp. 1-2).
The industry now has a chance to comment on both the Securus waiver request and the response by Worth Rises. Comments are due on January 7, 2022 and reply comments are due two weeks later. We strongly believe that the waiver should be granted and providers have the option to offer flat rates or any other pricing models that lower costs to inmates for both interstate and intrastate calls.