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Prison call rates turning into FCC headache

A handful of House Democrats are criticizing the new FCC Chairman's decision not to defend rate caps for phone calls placed within prison walls. Under the Obama administration, the FCC placed a rate cap on what phone companies are able to charge for inmate calls, which advocates have long argued are excessive. Now Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is declining to defend that order in court.

Reps. Bobby Rush, Elijah Cummings, G.K. Butterfield and Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a letter to the FCC's general counsel that "overpriced phone rates" deter communications with outside support systems that reduce recidivism.

"Chairman Pai's sudden reversal raises serious questions about why the FCC is now choosing to promote the financial interests of private sector telecommunications companies over those of inmates and their families."

Why it matters: It can cost more than you think for an inmate to place a phone call from prison. Depending on the state, per-minute rates and connection fees can add up for prisoners and their families, who petitioned the FCC for relief years ago. (It's a complicated issue, which The Verge lays out in detail.)

The backstory: The FCC in 2015 capped rates for inmate phone calls—an effort led by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, now the lone Democrat on the panel. Phone companies serving prisons sued, challenging the FCC's authority to set in-state call rates. Pai, who as a commissioner also argued the agency overstepped, said the FCC wouldn't defend them in court. At oral arguments this week, the FCC declined to argue its case.

The FCC declined to comment.

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