Bill to tackle high prison phone costs heads to Biden’s desk: NPR

Prison inmates make one of their daily batch of six phone calls to the York Community Reintegration Centre.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Prison inmates make one of their daily batch of six phone calls to the York Community Reintegration Centre.

John Moore/Getty Images

Legislation that aims to cut the cost of phone calls behind bars is heading to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The Martha Wright-Reed Fair and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022, which was approved by Congress last month, is a major victory for the Federal Communications Commission in its years-long fight to cap the amount that private companies charge inmates for phone calls.

In a statement, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks called the newly passed legislation a “gain for fairness.”

“Prisons and prisons have been charging predatory prices on incarcerated people for far too long,” Starks said. “The FCC is ready to make sure everyone has the ability to communicate.”

Although rates differ by state, calls from jail cost an average of $5 for a 30-minute phone call. These fees can place a heavy financial burden on incarcerated individuals and their loved ones seeking to maintain regular contact, which research shows can reduce recidivism. The bill itself is named after Martha Wright, a retired nurse who became a prison reform advocate after noticing the high cost of keeping in touch with her grandson.

Two main factors contribute to high phone call charges

One of the reasons for the high rates is that prisons and prisons usually develop an exclusive contract with a telecommunications company. This means incarcerated people and their families are stuck with one provider, even if the company charges high rates.

Another factor is site commissions or bribes that county sheriffs or state corrections receive. Some local officials argue that site commissions are key to funding staff who will monitor inmates’ phone calls for any threats to the community.

Prison reform advocates and federal regulators have looked at both contributing factors. Today, states such as New York, Ohio and Rhode Island have banned site commissions while California and Connecticut have free jail calls.

This bill could overhaul the prison phone industry

The FCC has the authority to regulate the cost of calls between states, but not within state borders, which FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel described as a “harmful loophole.”

In 2015, the FCC voted to cap the cost of phone calls in state prisons. But two years later, a federal court struck down those regulations, arguing that the FCC had no such authority.

This legislation could finally change that, giving federal regulators the control they need to set rates in the state and ensure “just and reasonable” fees.

Rosenworcel told NPR weekend edition that “fair and reasonable” is not an abstract concept, but a legal term that the FCC has used since the Communications Act of 1934.

“What that means is that these rates are fair and non-discriminatory,” she said in October. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live in this country, whether you’re incarcerated or not, you should pay about the same for making a few basic phone calls.”


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