FCC to Set Rules for Calling Services for Inmates with Disabilities

By: Andrew Regitsky

In May 2021, in a Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Docket 12-375, the FCC sought industry comments on requiring inmate calling services providers to provide access to all eligible relay services for incarcerated people with communication disabilities. The Commission also sought comments on ways to help ensure that interstate and international inmate calling services rates, terms, and conditions are just and reasonable. At its upcoming meeting on September 29, 2022, the agency is poised to use these comments to adopt a fourth Order in this proceeding. Specifically, the FCC is expected to do the following:

Require all inmate calling services providers to provide access to all relay services eligible for Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) Fund support, plus American Sign Language direct, or point-to-point, video communication, in any correctional facility located where broadband is available, in a jurisdiction with an average daily population of 50 or more incarcerated persons.

Determine that access to more technologically advanced forms of TRS—VRS, IP Relay, and IP CTS or CTS—is necessary to ensure that incarcerated people with hearing or speech disabilities have access to services that are functionally equivalent to the telephone service available to incarcerated people without such disabilities.

Require carriers to comply with these requirements by January 1, 2024.

VRS enables individuals who are deaf and use ASL to communicate in their primary language. CTS and IP CTS enable individuals who are hard of hearing and can speak to communicate by telephone with minimal disruption to the natural flow of conversation. IP Relay offers a text-based relay service that is faster than TTY-based TRS and more immune to the technical problems affecting TTY use on IP networks. Collectively, these four forms of TRS, along with TTY-based TRS and STS, are essential for ensuring that all segments of the TRS-eligible population have access to functionally equivalent communication. (Proposed Fourth Order at para. 19).

The Order will also clarify and expand the scope of the restrictions on inmate calling services providers’ authority to assess charges for TRS calls. Inmate calling services providers will be prohibited from levying or collecting any charge on any party to an intrastate, interstate, or international TTY-based TRS call, regardless of whether the party is the caller or the recipient and whether the party is an incarcerated person or is communicating with such individual, and regardless of whether the charge is characterized as a charge for the call itself or for the use of a device needed to make the call.

The agency proposes to expand the scope of inmate calling services providers’ annual reporting requirements to include additional accessibility data, including information related to the provision of all forms of TRS.

It will modify the TRS user registration requirements to facilitate the use of relay services by eligible incarcerated persons.

The Order adopts rules for the treatment of balances in inactive calling services accounts.

It lowers the caps on certain ancillary services charges. The maximum amount for third-party fees that inmate calling services providers may pass on to consumers for single-call services and third-party financial transactions will be lowered from $6.95 to a maximum amount of $3.00 when the fee is paid through an automated payment system and $5.95 when the fee is paid through a live agent.

It amends the Commission’s definitions of “Jail” and “Prison” to include every type of facility where individuals can be incarcerated or detained.

At its September meeting, the Commission also plans on adopting a Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in this proceeding. That Notice would:

Seek industry comments on further reforms to expand the provision of TRS to incarcerated people with communication disabilities.

Seek further comments on other reforms, including how best to use the data submitted in response to the Commission’s Third Mandatory Data Collection to establish just and reasonable permanent rate caps for interstate and international calling services.

Industry comments are due 30 days after the Notice appears in the Federal Register. Reply comments are due 30 days later.