Congress could finally do something about the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls

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(Photo: Image source via Getty Images)

(Photo: Image source via Getty Images)

For nearly 20 years, Martha Wright-Reed struggled to pay for phone calls with her incarcerated grandson, Ulandis Forte. He was imprisoned too far away for frequent visits, so phone calls were the main way to keep in touch. But a few 15-minute phone calls a week cost $200 a month, and Wright-Reed found herself choosing between paying for her medication and talking with her grandson.

Wright-Reed has since died and her grandson is no longer in prison. But a bill bearing his name would reduce the cost of phone calls in jails and prisons, and he could head for a vote in the Senate.

Last month the Martha Wright-Reed Fair and Reasonable Communications Act authorized the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with bipartisan support, marking the furthest any such legislation has gone in the Senate. If enacted, the bill restore the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to regulate the cost of all calls made by incarcerated persons from jails and prisons.

Although free or low-cost phone calls are available to most non-incarcerated people who have access to a cell phone and the Internet, calls in most jails and jails are a prohibitive price. Since 2018, the average cost of a 15 minute phone call jail time was $5.74. Indeed, a small number of private, for-profit companies exercise quasi-monopoly control over the telephone industry in detention centres.

“We need to be clear about how prisons make our loved ones disappear and separate families, especially black and brown families,” Forte wrote in a 2019 op-ed. “This isolation from the very communities that bring love and support to prisoners does not facilitate rehabilitation; it only creates more pain.

The high cost of calls disproportionately harms black people, who are incarcerated in state prisons in nearly five times the rate of white people in the United States Prisoners are only paid pennies an hour for their work, making expensive phone calls even more inaccessible. In many states, visits remain on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving phone calls as the only way to stay in touch with loved ones.

“We know you reduce recidivism when incarcerated people can stay in touch with family members,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who introduced the bill, told HuffPost. “And yet we make it as difficult as possible for them to stay in touch, because we make phone calls from prisons so incredibly expensive and beyond the reach of the average family.”

There is a separate bill pending passage in the Housesponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), which would prohibit detention facilities from receiving commissions from communications providers for calls made by incarcerated people, and impose price caps on such calls.

Prisoners cannot shop around for the best rates – they are limited to the provider chosen by their prison. Prison phone contracts are usually not awarded to the provider offering the lowest price, but to the one offering to share the highest percentage of their revenue.. This practice, known assite commission contracts,closely resembles private telephone companies that bribe prison systems to win lucrative contracts.

“The high cost of these calls completely disrupts the economic well-being of those on the outside who are ill-positioned to absorb the enormous costs of speaking with loved ones who are incarcerated,” Rush told HuffPost.

In 2000, Wright-Reed became the lead plaintiff in a class action against prison telephone companies and the Corrections Corporation of America, arguing that the exorbitant cost of calls was unconstitutional. The judge hearing the case referred the plaintiffs to the FCC. The process with the FCC dragged on for years, with little progress. When Wright-Reed and her co-petitioners asked the FCC to cap the cost of calls, the corrections department argued they would run out of money.

When President Barack Obama took office, he appointed Mignon Clyburn to the FCC. Clyburn has made justice by phone in prison a priority. In 2013, the FCC vote to cap out-of-state phone calls at 25 cents per minute. At the time, Clyburn credited Wright-Reed with spurring the movement that brought about this change. Two years later, the FCC voted to cap out-of-state and in-state jail calls at 11 cents per minute, and jail calls at 14 to 22 cents per minute, depending on the size of the facility. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who previously did legal work for prison telecommunications giant Securus Technologiesvoted against FCC reforms.

Before the price caps could go into effect, several prison telephone companies sued the FCC. While the case was still pending, President Donald Trump took office and named Pai Chairman of the FCC. Pay announcement in 2017 that the agency would no longer defend rate caps in the state in court. Months later, an appeals panel ruled in a 2-1 decision to overturn the 2015 rate caps, finding that the FCC had no authority to regulate calls in the state. The 2013 caps on out-of-state calls remained in place, but in-state calls account for the overwhelming majority of calls from jails and jails.

Rush has introduced bills nine times to deal with the high cost of phone calls in jails and prisons, starting in 2005, but was unable to get them signed into law. “There is organized resistance from sheriffs and local county law enforcement groups who are reaping huge profit from their unholy alliance with these phone companies,” Rush said.

After the 2017 court ruling, passing a bill in Congress that would explicitly authorize the FCC to regulate calls in the state took on new urgency. Duckworth contacted the National Association of Sheriffs – a group that previously threatens retaliation against prisoners if the cost of calls was regulated – and asked them to listen to it.

“I went up to them, when they were absolutely opposed to it originally, and I just said, ‘Please just listen to what I have to say, let me come to one of your meetings,'” Duckworth said of the group of sheriffs. “We were in close contact for about three years, working back and forth, refining, writing, rewriting the bill over and over and over again – until we got to a place where we could both to agree on.”

The Duckworth legislation has a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio). Telephone justice advocates have welcomed advancement of Duckworth’s bill, but I’m also hoping for a vote on Rush’s bill.

“This legislation, if it becomes law, will put significant checks on the outrageous and predatory rates imposed on already struggling families and provide a measure of sanity in a completely broken market,” Cheryl Leanza, policy adviser at the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry, said in a statement. “The Compromise Amendment restores the power of the Federal Communications Commission to pass just and reasonable rates, as it should. We look forward to affirmative votes in the Senate and House, where Rep. Rush’s bill, HR 2489, is set to proceed.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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