- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - County jails in Iowa will soon be required to follow new federal rules aimed at making it cheaper for inmates to call loved ones, but a pending lawsuit is expected to complicate the effort.

Locals officials who oversee the nearly 100 jails in Iowa are expected to be in compliance by June 20 with reduced phone rates and fees in response to rules issued last October by the Federal Communications Commission. But other proposed reductions on phone rates and fees are on hold amid a legal challenge by some telecommunications companies that provide the phone services.

Advocates say the Iowa Legislature should step in and set uniform costs, though some law enforcement officials argue such regulation before the lawsuit is settled could complicate things.

The Federal Communications Commission has reviewed inmate phone rates in recent years amid growing research that contact between inmates and families reduces recidivism. High phone rates can make that communication unaffordable.

Jean Basinger, president of Iowa Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, which seeks prison reforms, said there needs to be more equity on calls made to and from jails after recent relief at state prisons. She noted jail inmates are often in temporary detainment and need to make timely calls.

“People who are in jail are needing to make all kinds of arrangements with their support system on the outside,” she said. “And yet they have such limited resources.”

In January, the Iowa Department of Corrections reduced phone charges at Iowa prisons from a flat rate of $2.90 for most calls to 11 cents per minute. Gov. Terry Branstad applauded the move in his Condition of the State address as part of the state’s efforts to address criminal justice reform, though the change was also mandated by the FCC guidelines.

The telecommunications companies in their federal lawsuit argue the FCC does not have the authority to regulate the phone rates. A U.S. court of appeals granted a temporary hold in March over in-state calls and other fees. It’s not expected to affect the changes at Iowa prisons, though it could mean different things for prisons in other states.

Iowa jails operate under separate oversight from state prisons. The lawsuit challenge means the roughly 4,000 jail inmates in Iowa must continue to pay a range of telephone rates.

Lee Petro, a Washington attorney who donated his time to help families of inmates petition the FCC to regulate phone rates, said in an email that some telecommunications companies that contract with Iowa jails and other corrections facilities around the country have the legal authority under the lawsuit’s stay to charge transaction fees for certain calls. They can range up to nearly $15 per call depending on the company, according to a January 2015 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group that provides research on incarceration.

It’s difficult to gauge the use of such fees at Iowa jails. A review of contracts between some of the largest county sheriff’s offices and telecommunications companies show limited information. Each county sheriff’s office in Iowa can contract with a different telecommunications company.

States like Alabama, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have established regulations on inmate communications services. Advocates said the federal lawsuit could take months or years to be resolved, and the Iowa Legislature should step in.

Karin Sandahl, the owner of Telespan Communications in West Des Moines, said she’ll launch a lobbying effort next session to seek clear guidelines for the industry including her company, which offers phone services to work release facilities in Iowa and county sheriff’s offices.

Sandahl said she wants state leaders, including Branstad, to “make Iowa one of those states that is taking control of their rates and is not waiting for a long drawn-out lawsuit.”

Ben Hammes, a spokesman for Branstad, said via email the governor’s office “would be open to conversations and would consider different options that are brought forward.”

Maj. Thomas Gibbs, chief deputy for the Scott County Sheriff’s Office in Davenport, said his department is in the midst of reviewing how its rates will change ahead of the FCC deadline. He called the system of telephones rates “a complex issue.” But he thinks the state should wait on intervention until the lawsuit is settled because it could cause more confusion.

“Unfortunately the best option is to wait to see what the judicial system brings forth,” he said.

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