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Oklahoma appeals cap on inmate phone calls

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OKLAHOMA - It can cost a lot of money to talk to someone in jail.

But, those with a loved locked up have been taking on the high cost.

“We are trying to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of these inmates and their families who are basically poor,” said Sundra Flansberg, VOICE.

It’s why the FCC said it passed a rule last year to cap what inmates and their families pay for phone calls.

“It makes them decide between groceries or rent or child care,” she said.

Flansburg said it's critical that inmates can afford the calls.

“We know from research that keeping contact with family members insures a more successful re-entry into society,” Flansburg said.

The FCC rule was passed last year but will be fully enacted in March.

Before the change, inmates paid $3 for a 15-minute call.

With the new rules, it drops to $1.65 for 15 minutes.

It’s a  roughly 40 percent cut.

But, several groups are pushing to change that.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections, The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office and the Oklahoma County Sheriffs Association filed a petition claiming the FCC ignored the cost to jails and prisons to provide phone services to prisoners and overstepped its legal authority.

Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel is one of the petitioners.

“This action will cost our budget over $900,000 a year and, sadly, will result in fewer inmate services,” Whetsel said.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections also stands to lose money.

“We’ve looked at the impact of the rule, and the department stands to lose $3,000,000 a year,” said Terri Watkins, Oklahoma Department of Corrections. “We will work through the appeal process because, with budget constraints, we can’t’ make it up any other way.”

That’s why Flansburg said the fight is all about finances.

“For instance, the Oklahoma County jail requires their phone call vendor to give back to the jail 69 percent commissions on the gross revenue from the prisoners,” she said.

The rates vary from state to county, but Oklahoma County inmates are charged 27 cents per minute.

“So, inmates maybe earning a dollar an hour or so from work at the jail," she said. "It’s their families that are putting money in their accounts to pay for phone calls."

Four telephone companies that provide prisoner phone services have signed on to a similar action filed in the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.