HELENA — A federal ruling capping what it called “exorbitant” long-distance telephone rates charged to prison inmates across the nation won’t affect state prisoners in Montana, which already charges rates at or below the new cap.
However, it was unclear Monday whether Friday’s Federal Communications Commission decision might force changes in calling rates charged to prisoners held in some city or county jails across Montana.
The ruling applies to interstate long-distance calls made by prisoners held in local jails, but Montana counties arrange their own contracts for jail telephone calls, and those contracts vary across the state, said Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties.
Judy Beck, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said the agency hasn’t reviewed the FCC ruling, but doesn’t foresee any problems since the rates paid by Montana inmates for outgoing telephone calls are below the new cap.
People held in prisons and jails generally can’t get incoming telephone calls and must pay for calls they make to friends or relatives, either with a debit card, a prepaid amount or a collect call.
The FCC voted 2-1 last Friday to cap rates charged to inmates at 21 cents per minute for debit and prepaid call and 25 cents per minute for a collect call.
The FCC also said the “just and reasonable” amounts are 12 cents per minute for debit and prepaid calls and 14 cents per minute for collect calls, and that prisoners can file challenges to any rates higher than that amount and seek refunds.
The federal agency said some prisons are charging inmates up to 89 cents a minute and a “setup fee” of $3.95 per call, making a 15-minute call cost more than $17. In Montana, the state prison system signed a three-year contract with Telmate in early 2011 to handle outgoing calls by inmates.
Telmate charges Montana inmates 12 cents a minute for any call and a 24-cents-per-call connection fee. The state gets a monthly commission from the contract, of 25 percent of the revenue or $23,000, whichever is greater.
The money is deposited into an Inmate Welfare Fund, which is used to buy items such as recreation, music, education, religious and other equipment used by inmates, Beck said.
The Telmate system is used by inmates at the Montana State Prison, Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City and Riverside Youth Correctional Facility in Boulder.
Beck said the private prison in Shelby and regional prisons in Great Falls and Glendive that hold state inmates are required to have a similar telephone system for inmates, but each contracts with its own vendor.
In Montana’s largest county, the Yellowstone County jail in Billings is switching from its current contractor to Telmate, in part because the current contractor’s rates are so high, said sheriff’s Lt. Sam Bofto.
Bofto referred further questions to Undersheriff Kevin Evans, who could not be reached for comment Monday.