California Public Utilities Commission Approves Rulemaking Regarding Caps on Phone Rates for Those Incarcerated (R.20-10-002)

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By Andrew D. Kent

At its August 19, 2021, teleconference meeting [Agenda Item 31], the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) unanimously voted to adopt an interim cap on intrastate incarcerated persons calling services (IPCS) rates for seven cents ($0.07) per minute for prepaid and collect calls. D.21-08-037 prohibits the imposition of single-call, paper bill, live agent, and automated payment fees in association with intrastate and jurisdictionally mixed IPCS. It also requires the pass-through, with no markup, of third-party financial transaction fees, up to a limit of $6.95 per transaction. Prior to the adoption, the rates and fees for IPCS in California were unregulated. The decision also directs telephone corporations to provide their customers with notice of the adopted rate cap and ancillary fee requirements for which they have 45 days to comply.

The Commission’s decision found the adoption of an interim rate cap “provides immediate rate relief to approximately 171,000 incarcerated people located at 343 incarceration facilities in California.” The interim rate cap remains in effect until the Commission adopts a permanent IPCS intrastate rate cap.

The CPUC initiated the rulemaking on its own motion in October 2020 to consider how to ensure incarcerated people’s access to intrastate telecommunication services is at rates that are just and reasonable. [26:1 CRLR 179–181, 201; 26:2 CRLR 222]

At the August 19, 2021 meeting, the Commissioners heard public comments from callers who expressed the need for regulation to cap IPCS because many incarcerated families are low-income, and the cost is an additional burden for incarcerated persons to communicate with family members, which is important for their mental health and can provide them with a better outcome when they are released. Additionally, callers wanted the Commission to broaden the rate cap on other forms of communication to include text and video communication that have become more frequently used at incarceration facilities. One caller did ask the Commission to consider the impacts on the incarceration facilities of a cap on IPCS since the charge can provide some funding to the incarceration facilities and their programs.

The Commissioners noted during the hearing that this interim decision is the first step as they develop a permanent rate structure. In response to public comment, the Commission also noted that it would look into expanding caps on other forms of communication such as text and video. On September 15, 2021, a remote prehearing conference (PHC) regarding the OIR to Consider Regulating Telecommunications Services Used by Incarcerated People was held. The prehearing conference gave persons interested in Rulemaking 20-10-002 the opportunity to provide recommendations as well as the schedule for Phase II of the rulemaking.

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