Public Utilities Commission Considers Regulating the Cost of Telecommunications Services Used by Incarcerated People

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By Madison Orcutt

At its meeting on October 8, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) unanimously voted to adopt an Order Instituting Rulemaking (OIR) to Consider Regulating Telecommunications Services Used by Incarcerated People (R.20-10-002) [Agenda Item 10]. The CPUC opened this OIR on its own motion. During this proceeding, the CPUC will consider how to ensure incarcerated people’s access to intrastate telecommunications services at rates that are just and reasonable. According to the OIR, the CPUC has not previously regulated the rates of telephone services provided to incarcerated people in California’s prisons and jails.

In the OIR, the Commission framed this proceeding as a response to a regulatory gap. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) caps rates for interstate inmate calls, the FCC’s authority does not extend to intrastate calls. As noted in the OIR, the vast majority of calls made by incarcerated people are intrastate calls and are thus not subject to FCC regulation. For this reason, the CPUC noted that the FCC recently urged its state partners—including the CPUC—to take action to address high intrastate rates.

Pursuant to Public Utilities Code section 451, the CPUC has a statutory mandate to ensure that all charges demanded or received by any public utility are “just and reasonable.” In the OIR, the CPUC emphasized the high costs imposed on incarcerated people and their families as part of being in prison or jail. For example, the CPUC highlighted that the average cost of a fifteen-minute intrastate phone call placed from a California jail or prison is $1.23, the twenty-eighth most expensive in the nation. While these calls are free in some California counties, a fifteen-minute call from a young person incarcerated in a juvenile facility costs $13.65 in San Benito County.

In this OIR, the CPUC further characterized these costs as an undue financial burden on low-income families and communities of color, both of whom face disproportionate rates of incarceration. The CPUC also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of these inequalities; during the pandemic, incarcerated people face significant limitations when attempting to access their families.

The Commission accepted public comments on this proceeding through November 9, 2020. Reply comments are due by November 19, 2020. The CPUC further ordered specified wireline service providers to respond to the following questions within thirty days of the Commission adopting this OIR:

  1. Should the Commission exercise its authority to regulate the companies that provide those telecommunications services to incarcerated minors and people in California, and if so, how?
  2. Should the Commission set rate caps for intrastate calling for incarcerated people, including video calls?
  3. Should the Commission limit the types of additional fees providers can charge users of calling services for incarcerated people?
  4. Should the Commission act to protect calling services for incarcerated people with communications disabilities by limiting charges for inmate calling services calls involving the use of text telephones?

Preliminarily, the OIR outlines a prehearing conference date of December 10, 2020, and a scoping memo due sometime during the first quarter of 2021. The Commission anticipates a decision on this proceeding sometime during the second or third quarter of 2021.

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