Biden signs bill to cut costly phone calls in prisons, severe blow to ‘predatory’ industry

President Joe Biden signed a bill allowing federal regulators to address the extremely high cost of making phone and video calls while serving a prison sentence.

The bipartisan Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act allows the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that telecommunications companies charge “fair and reasonable” rates to prison inmates, who pay an average of $3 for a 15-minute phone call, excluding fees and other $1.4 billion in industry-related additional levies.

“The cost of daily communication is probably the worst price people behind bars and their loved ones face,” according to the Prisons Policy Initiative, which states that prisons and prisons benefit from so-called “kickback” sites in the form of commissions when developed exclusive contracts with the telecommunications company, forcing some of the poorest people in the country to pay more for communications with their loved ones than any other family in the US.

In Kentucky, a 15-minute long-distance phone call can cost up to $5.70 to a local landline or $10 to a cell phone.

“No family member should ever have to choose between staying in touch with a loved one imprisoned or paying the bills,” Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, who co-sponsored the bill, said in a January 5 statement.

Over 1.2 million Americans are in federal prisons. Tens of thousands of others are in state and local prisons or in custody awaiting trial before being convicted of a crime.

Prison reform advocates and regulators have scrutinized such deals and “kickback” arrangements, leading to reforms in New York, Ohio and Rhode Island, where establishment commissions are now banned. California and Connecticut made free phone calls in prisons.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also frozen in-person visits for many prison inmates, increasing skyrocketing phone and video call costs, and prisons and jails have also done away with in-person visits altogether, forcing families to sign up for expensive video visits.

Federal watchdogs have been pushing to lower the cost of phone calls in prisons for several years, but these efforts have largely been abandoned under President Donald Trump.

The FCC has federal jurisdiction to regulate the cost of interstate calls; in 2015, the agency decided to cap domestic call costs, but the measure was rejected in court.

The new law will finally solve this.

The measure was named after Martha Wright, a retired nurse who campaigned against the excessive cost of keeping in touch with her imprisoned grandson, with monthly phone charges as high as $100. The bipartisan legislation passed Congress last month, and President Biden signed it into law on January 5.

“Jails and prisons have been charging predatory rates to inmates for far too long,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement last month.

The law “provides the Commission with clear powers to act to ensure that rates charged to inmates are fair and reasonable, regardless of the phone technology used to make the call or whether the call crosses state lines,” she said.

“Contacting prison inmates with the outside world is not only an essential part of the rehabilitation process, but also provides many benefits, including an overall decrease in recidivism,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.

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