Last year, the Federal Communications Commission put in place a new set of rules that make it much more difficult for the providers of prison telephone services to charge the bejeezus out of inmates and their families. How might the providers continue with their scam? One shady, anonymous document may provide an answer.
Reporters at the Huffington Post were provided with an unsigned memo which seems to outline for local governments and jail administrators how they might continue making lots of money from the phone companies. When the FCC implemented caps on the per-minute rates for calls last year—which were sometimes as high as $14—it also discouraged companies from giving commissions on their revenue to jail administrators.
Those commissions were an important part of the scam. Providers who charge the most for service are capable of giving jails the largest kickbacks, meaning the jails are more likely to continue using those providers. The inmates, meanwhile, continue getting screwed with exorbitant costs. Take away the kickbacks, and the providers have much less power to incentivize administrators to employ them. The jails and their phone providers both lose.
HuffPo’s anonymous document, which may or may not have been created by one of the phone companies, provides a solution for the state and local governments who administer prisons: continue taking the money, but do it in terms that don’t include the word “commission,” so as to sneak under the FCC’s radar. From HuffPo:
The anonymous document that recently came to light lays out a straightforward way to get around this FCC order: pretend that commissions don’t exist, charge prisoners and their families a whole new set of fees and call them something else.
“The terms ‘site commission’ and ‘commission’ must never be used in any context or in any forum,” the document explains. Instead, the document recommends getting state or local governments to pass laws allowing prison phone companies to charge new fees to replace commissions. These companies, the document notes, should avoid being present at relevant government meetings.
The provenance of the memo is weird and murky. HuffPo obtained it from a lawyer who represents a group of families who were subjected to the phone charges, and who also submitted it to the FCC. In his FCC filing, the attorney admits that he has “not been able to confirm the authorship of the document,” and he did not comment on where he obtained to HuffPo. So it might be nothing. But if jail phone companies did want to keep paying off the people who run jails, this seems like a good way to do it.