Webinar presenters Bill Pope and Craig Storer answered a number of your questions after their presentation, The Current FCC Proceedings and How They Will Affect Your Inmate Communications. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: Can you explain what you mean by a test call?
Bill Pope: A test call would be just picking up one of the inmate telephones in the jail and placing a call, maybe have an inmate make a call for you, or something like that, just so you can get a bill, you can check the reports and make sure the rates correspond with what the regulations are. So, a lot of times, an inmate telephone provider will have an interface that you can get in there and see what they’re charging. Some of them don’t do that. So, if an inmate, a lot of times, when they’re first being booked, they’ll place a call. So, generally, from the booking phone, you might want to just try a test call to your cell phone and just see what the rates are being quoted when you complete a call.
Audience Question: So, it’s strictly for billing purposes? It’s not necessarily to see if the connection quality or the audio is clear?
Bill Pope: Well, it’s always good to just check the audio quality, too. A lot of times we recommend, hey, try calling their call center, and make sure you can get a live person and that they’re handling the customer as well, too.
Audience Question: I’ve seen some companies moving towards data charging for phones and videos. Is this a workaround to the proposed chart changes? If so, will NCIC be looking to moving towards data?
Bill Pope: Yeah, That’s a good question. We’ve seen that, and a lot of that comes with tablets. Some of the jails and prisons are putting tablets in. That they’re charging on data and so maybe they’re not charging for on a per-message basis but instead charging – I’m seeing numbers as much as $0.05 a minute for data access. So, maybe they’re charging $0.05 a minute for phone calls that are made through the data package. So, yes, that is kind of a workaround in it. It may be good except they’re also charging $0.05 a minute for access into other content, like, you know, reading books, reading the Bible or the Torah, or the Koran. I think that’s probably going to be maybe a Federal Trade Commission argument some point down the road, especially, you know, as Biden takes office. I think we’ll see a lot of inmate’s rights groups start focusing on the content charges that are being charged on tablets, which would be the phone, would be video visitation, would be movies, music, messaging, and things like that. So, I foresee some regulation coming down the road in the next 2 to 3 years on that. Just recently, they’ve just started talking about video visitation and that cost. So, I just see it continually evolving. So, good question there, Kevin.
Audience Question: What if inmates’ families don’t have a debit or credit card? How can they receive a call?
Craig Storer: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Usually, inmate telephone providers will offer a range of funding mechanisms for friends and family to set up an account. And while credit and debit card are, you know, by far and away, the most popular means, there should be other means for them to set up and fund an account, whether that be, just by sending a money order or physical payment to the inmate telephone provider or even using some third-party billing services like MoneyGram or Western Union. And then, of course, in addition to a friend and family being able to fund those phone calls, most facilities, and most inmate telephone providers do also offer the ability to friends and family to place money on the inmate’s account whether that be directly under the inmates’ phone account or under the facility’s commissary account from which the inmate can then pull funds over to their calling account. So, in the ideal scenario, we provide a range of payment methods certainly understanding that different people have access to different mechanisms for, you know, accessing their funds and accepting phone calls.
Audience Question: Do you have a sense of how much typical the typical agency makes from their inmate calling program? What percentage of their budget might be at stake here? Is it 5% of their budget? 10%? Do you have a sense?
Bill Pope: I think that’s going to vary by agency. No, it’s not generally a large part of their budget, but a lot of times, this is a big chunk of the inmate welfare fund. That’s where it could have a big impact. The items that go back to benefit of the inmates, maybe paying for cable TV, paying for educational courses, anything that’s, you know extra within the jail for the inmates. We see a lot of jails trying to roll out re-entry programs, things like that. Well, a lot of times, this funding goes back into those. So that’s where it could hurt the inmates by eliminating these commission payments. I forgot to mention earlier, the National Sheriffs Association Executive Director Jonathan Thompson and several sheriffs did meet with the FCC and did kind of plead their case that, you know, we can’t impact the budgets of sheriffs. The FCC did state that they would allow variances if the $0.02 per minute wasn’t covering costs. It’s going to be difficult and require a lot of data production, but we might be able to get some variances around that $0.02 per minute. The FCC never really clarified that and they were basically saying that might be more for smaller jails that were under 350 beds or jails that are very rural, maybe up in Barrow, Alaska, or something like that. I think that was going to make it more difficult to try to get that variance but that’s something that we will push for our customers further down the road if the FCC does move forward with capping the Commission rates. I hope I answered your question.
Audience Question: Why is there a differentiation in the cost per minute between jails and prisons? I think you said that one is 12 cents a minute, and one’s 14 cents Is that right?
Craig Storer: Yeah, So, typically, what we found, or at least what the regulators believed and found, is that they tried to base these rates on volume and, and kind of the expense that goes into providing inmate communications for larger, longer-term facilities versus the smaller, shorter-term county jails and police departments. With some previous rulemaking efforts, and certainly with this one as well, that’s kind of where they came to those rates by looking at the volumes with the cost productions that the providers had to do, looking at those submissions for providers as they compare between prisons and county jails. That’s where they came up with those rates.
Audience Question: What should we be doing if we work for a prison or jail and we’re concerned about what you’ve just talked about? What should we be doing and give us our next couple of steps?
Bill Pope: First of all, make sure your inmate phone providers filed something with the FCC. You want to make sure that they’re your representative for the telecommunications to your constituents. So, they might as well be your representative to the FCC. Make sure they filed something – Do they support it? Are they in opposition to this? In our case, we were all in support of it except for the caps on the Commission. We know our agencies need that money. So, make sure your provider – if you need that money for your budget, make sure your provider’s filing comments stating that they do not support the cap on commissions. I mean, they’ve already set what the rates are what they consider fair and reasonable at $0.16 per minute for a county agency, $0.14 a minute for prison. So why would it be wrong if your agency received 50% of that as opposed to 12.5%? So, that’s one argument the FCC never addressed. Why? What difference does it make if they regulate commissions if they’ve already set the caps on the rates and we can’t go above those? The second thing is, you can go in there and file your own comments. We gave you the link, go in there and see what some of the other people filed comments said. You’re able to click on all the comments and open up a PDF and just see what some of the other agencies are saying. You’re going to see a lot of inmate rights groups and what they’re saying. So, you want to make sure that you’re getting your say in there as well. That’s your first 2 things. Just go to your inmate phone provider and then take your comments to the FCC. If you need us too, we can send you out kind of a summary. We’ve kind of sent out a summary of the order already. On that FCC website, you can follow the docket and see, you know, if there’s going to be any changes with all the comments being filed.
Audience Question: Craig, did you have anything else you wanted to add in there?
Craig Storer: Extremely briefly, just to add to what Bill mentioned. It’s just really important for an agency to have an idea of what the current calling rates and fees are in their agreements. We come across a lot of agencies. Obviously, they’re very busy, and they have a lot more important things to spend their time on, but a lot of agencies might not have a clear understanding of the structure of the calling rates and fees that are under their current agreements. But certainly, the next time these contracts get bid out, it’s important to use an RFP or a bid instrument that makes it incumbent on the vendors to pitch accurate, clear calling rates for there to be a clear understanding of what the calling rates and the ancillary fees are and for those rates and fees to get referenced in the actual contract, as well, which, you know, will hold the vendors accountable to those rates and allows the agency to go back and refer to what they are.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of The Current FCC Proceedings and How They Will Affect Your Inmate Communications.