Bill to fight expensive prison phone call costs heads to Biden’s desk : NPR

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Prison inmates make one of their daily allotment of six phone calls at the York Community Reintegration Center.

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John Moore/Getty Images

Prison inmates make one of their daily allotment of six phone calls at the York Community Reintegration Center.

John Moore/Getty Images

Legislation that aims to reduce the costs 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 limit how much private companies charge people in prison for phone calls.

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

“Jails and prisons have charged predatory rates to incarcerated individuals for far too long,” Starks said. “The FCC is ready to ensure that everyone has the ability to communicate.”

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

Two main factors contribute to expensive phone charges

One reason for high rates is that prisons and jails typically develop an exclusive contract with one telecommunications company. This means that people in prison and their families are stuck with one provider even if the company charges high rates.

Another factor is site commissions, or kickbacks received by county sheriffs or state corrections departments. Some local officials argue that site commissions are crucial to funding staff who will monitor inmate calls for any threats to the community.

Prison reform advocates and federal regulators have scrutinized both contributing factors. Today, states such as New York, Ohio and Rhode Island ban site commissions while California and Connecticut have made calls to prison free of charge.

This bill could change the prison phone industry

The FCC had jurisdiction to regulate the cost of interstate calls, but not within state borders, which FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel described as a “detrimental loophole.”

Back in 2015, the FCC voted chap costs on calls to prison in the state. But two years later, a federal court affected those regulations, arguing that the FCC had no such authority.

This legislation could finally change that, giving federal regulators control to address state rates and ensure “fair and reasonable” payments.

Rosenworcel told NPR’s Weekend edition that “fair and reasonable” is not an abstract concept, but a legal term that the FCC has been using since Communications Act 1934.

“What that means is that those rates are fair and not discriminatory,” she said in October. “No matter who you are or where you live in this country, whether you’re in prison or not, you should be charged about the same to make some basic phone calls.”

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