Congress Might Finally Do Something About The Exorbitant Cost Of Prison Phone Calls

The late Martha Wright-Reed became a phone justice activist after having to choose between paying for her medication and speaking with her grandson.
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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 they could stay 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 speaking with her grandson.

Wright-Reed has since passed away, and her grandson is no longer in prison. But a bill bearing her name would bring down the cost of phone calls in prisons and jails, and it could be heading to a vote on the Senate floor.

Last month, the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee with bipartisan support, marking the furthest that any legislation of this kind has gotten in the Senate. If signed into law, the bill would restore the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to regulate the cost of all calls incarcerated people make from prisons and jails.

Although free or low-cost phone calls are available to most non-incarcerated people who have access to a cellphone and internet, calls in most prisons and jails are prohibitively expensive. As of 2018, the average cost of a 15-minute phone call from jail was $5.74. That’s because a small number of private for-profit companies have near-monopolistic control over the phone industry in detention facilities.

“We need to be clear about how prisons disappear our loved ones and break apart families, especially Black and Brown families,” Forte wrote in a 2019 op-ed. “This isolation from the very communities that provide love and support to incarcerated individuals does not facilitate rehabilitation; it only creates further pain.”

The high cost of calls disproportionately harms Black people, who are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white people in the U.S. People who are incarcerated are paid as little as pennies per hour for their labor, putting costly phone calls even further out of reach. In many states, visitation remains on pause because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving phone calls as the only way to stay in touch with loved ones.

“We know that you lower recidivism when the incarcerated can stay in touch with their 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 out of reach for the average family.”

There is a separate bill awaiting movement in the House, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), that would ban detention facilities from receiving commissions from communications providers for calls placed by incarcerated people, and would impose rate caps on those calls.

Incarcerated people cannot shop around for the best rates — they are limited to whichever provider their prison selects. Prison phone contracts are typically not awarded to the provider with the lowest price, but to the one offering to share the highest percentage of its revenue. This practice, known as “site commission contracts,” closely resembles private phone companies paying kickbacks to prison systems to win lucrative contracts.

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

In 2000 Wright-Reed became the lead plaintiff in a class action suit against prison phone companies and the Corrections Corporation of America, arguing that the exorbitant cost of calls was unconstitutional. The judge in 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, corrections departments argued that they would run out of money.

When President Barack Obama entered office, he appointed Mignon Clyburn to the FCC. Clyburn made prison phone justice a priority. In 2013, the FCC voted 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 both out-of-state and in-state prison calls at 11 cents a minute, and jail calls at 14 to 22 cents a minute, depending on the size of the facility. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who previously did legal work for the prison telecom giant Securus Technologies, voted against the FCC’s reforms.

Before the rate caps could go into effect, several prison phone companies sued the FCC. While the case was still ongoing, President Donald Trump entered office and appointed Pai chairman of the FCC. Pai announced in 2017 that the agency would no longer defend in-state rate caps in court. Months later, an appellate panel ruled in a 2-1 decision to vacate the 2015 rate caps, finding that the FCC didn’t have the authority to regulate in-state calls. The 2013 caps on out-of-state calls remained in place, but in-state calls account for the overwhelming majority of calls from prisons and jails.

Rush has introduced bills to address the high cost of phone calls in prisons and jails nine times, starting in 2005, but has not been able to get any signed into law. “There’s an organized resistance from sheriffs and local county law enforcement groups that reap an enormous profit from their unholy alliance with these phone companies,” Rush said.

After the 2017 court ruling, getting a bill passed in Congress that would explicitly authorize the FCC to regulate in-state calls took on new urgency. Duckworth contacted the National Sheriffs’ Association — a group that previously threatened retaliation against prisoners if the cost of calls were regulated — and asked them to hear her out.

“I went to them, when originally they were absolutely opposed to it, 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 sheriffs group. “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 agree on it.”

The Duckworth legislation has one Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio). Phone justice advocates have welcomed the advancement of Duckworth’s bill, but hope for a vote on Rush’s bill as well.

“This legislation, if it becomes law, will place an important check on the outrageous and predatory rates imposed on families that are already struggling and provide a measure of sanity in a completely broken marketplace,” Cheryl Leanza, policy adviser to the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry, said in a statement. “The compromise amendment restores the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to adopt just and reasonable rates, as it should. We look forward to positive votes in the full Senate and in the House, where Rep. Rush’s bill, H.R. 2489, is ready to move forward.”

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