Fees for phone calls to people incarcerated in U.S. prisons have skyrocketed over the past three years — with the industry costing families nearly $1 billion a year — according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank.
But that could soon change, because legislation awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature would allow the Federal Communications Commission to cap the price of some prison phone calls.
Titled the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, the bill, which passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate last week, would allow the price of internal inmate phone calls to be regulated by the FCC.
The legislation was named after Martha Wright-Reed, who originally filed a petition with the FCC to reduce the price of phone calls in prison to keep in touch with her incarcerated grandson.
“She knew then what we all know now. For those incarcerated and their loved ones, talk is not cheap,” FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel said earlier in a statement. “Prisoners are often separated from their families by hundreds of kilometres, and families may lack the time and funds to make regular visits. So calls from pay phones are the only way to stay in touch.”
“But the price of individual calls can be as much as many of us pay for unlimited monthly plans,” Rosenworcel said. “This makes it difficult for the families of prisoners to stay in touch. This is not only a burden on the household budget. It is a terrible burden on millions of families and children of those incarcerated – and it hurts us all because regular contact with relatives can reduce recidivism .”
Rosenworcel has said the FCC should be “embarrassed” and “that it has taken us this long to fix this problem is particularly shameful,” but she welcomed the ongoing push to change the call regulations.
Prison phone rates operate on a “kickback” system, where one company will be contracted by a state agency to facilitate the call, and the state agency will then receive a portion of the phone charges, according to the group Prison Phone Justice.
The White House has not yet said whether Biden will sign the bill.
Kentucky has the highest cost for a 15-minute intrastate phone call, coming in at $5.70 total, according to Prison Phone Justice. By comparison, the cheapest state to make a 15-minute intrastate phone call is New Hampshire, with the cost just 20 cents total.
In 2017, a federal court struck down the FCC’s cap on in-state prison phone calls, resulting in much higher costs for inmates calling in-state.
However, interstate phone calls remain capped at 25 cents per minute, according to that ruling.
The phone charges are not paid by inmates, but by their families, and because of the 2017 court ruling, the FCC could not regulate the prison phone industry on its own, except by an act of Congress.
“Jails and prisons have burdened incarcerated individuals for far too long. Today’s action ensures that the Commission has clear authority to act to ensure that the rates charged to incarcerated individuals are fair and reasonable, regardless of the telephone technology used to make the call or whether the call crosses state lines ,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in a statement last week. “I hope the commission moves quickly to implement the rulemaking required by the statute soon after President Biden signs the legislation.”
The bill was supported by both law enforcement agencies and prison rights advocates.
“No family member should ever have to choose between staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one and paying the bills,” Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, said last week. “We must do everything we can to ensure that telephone charges in correctional facilities are fair and reasonable, so that family members can afford to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones, and improve the chances that rehabilitated offenders will be able to become productive members of society after their release. “
Duckworth introduced the bill with retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has said that “exorbitantly high prison phone rates create an often insurmountable barrier between those in prison and their families.”