Congress passes bill to cap 'predatory' prison phone calls

The calls cost families nearly $1 billion, according to one outside assessment.

December 28, 2022, 2:03 PM

Fees for phone calls for people incarcerated in America's prisons have skyrocketed in 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 that is awaiting President Joe Biden's signature will let the Federal Communications Commission 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, will allow for the price of intrastate 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 seeking to reduce the price of prison phone calls to keep in touch with her incarcerated grandson.

"She knew then what we all know now. For those who are incarcerated and their loved ones, talk does not come cheap," the chair of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, previously said in a statement. "Prisoners are often separated from their families by hundreds of miles, and families may lack the time and means to make regular visits. So calls from payphones are the only way to stay connected."

"But the price of individual calls can be as much as many of us pay for unlimited monthly plans," Rosenworcel said. "This makes it hard for the families of prisoners to stay in touch. This is not just a strain on the household budget. It is a cruel strain on the millions of families and children of the incarcerated—and it harms all of us because regular contact with kin can reduce recidivism."

Rosenworcel has said the FCC should be "embarrassed" and "that it has taken us so long to fix this problem is especially shameful," but she welcomed the ongoing push to change call regulations.

Prison phone call rates operate on a "kickback" system, where one company will be contracted out by a state agency to facilitate the call and that state agency will then get a portion of the phone fees, according to the group Prison Phone Justice.

PHOTO: FILE - An inmate uses a telephone from a cell at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, Aug. 16, 2016.
An inmate uses a telephone from a cell at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, Aug. 16, 2016.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The White House has not yet said whether Biden will sign the bill.

Kentucky has the highest cost of 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 being just 20 cents in total.

In 2017, a federal court struck down the FCC's capping of intrastate prison phone calls, resulting in much higher costs for inmates making calls in state.

However, interstate phone calls remain capped at 25 cents per minute, according to that ruling.

The phone call fees are not paid by inmates but by their families and, because of the 2017 court ruling, the FCC couldn't regulate the prison phone call industry on its own except by an act of Congress.

"Jails and prisons have charged predatory rates to incarcerated individuals for far too long. Today's action ensures the Commission has clear authority to act to ensure that rates charged for incarcerated individuals are just and reasonable no matter the phone 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 rule-making as required by the statute soon after President Biden signs the legislation."

The bill was supported by law enforcement agencies and prison rights advocates alike.

"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 all that we can to ensure that phone rates in correctional facilities are just and reasonable so family members can afford to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones, improving the chances that rehabilitated offenders will be able to become productive members of society upon their release."

Duckworth introduced the bill with retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who has said "outrageously high prison phone call rates create an often insurmountable barrier between those in prison and their families."

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