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Congress passes bill to limit 'predatory' phone calls in prisons

Rates of phone calls to people incarcerated in US prisons have skyrocketed over 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, as legislation awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature will allow the Federal Communications Commission to cap the price of some calls from prison.

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 the price of intrastate interstate calls to be regulated by the FCC.

The legislation is named after Martha Wright-Reed, who originally petitioned the FCC seeking to reduce the price of prison calls to keep in touch with her incarcerated grandson.

“She knew then what we all know now. For those incarcerated and their loved ones, talking doesn’t come cheap,” FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel said earlier in a statement. “Prisoners are often separated from their families by hundreds of kilometers, and families may not have the time and means to pay regular visits. So calls from payphones are the only way they can stay connected.”

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

Rosenworcel said the FCC should be “ashamed” and “that it took us so long to fix this issue is especially shameful”, but she welcomed the continued effort to change calling regulations.

Prison phone call rates operate on a “kickback” system, where a company will be hired by a state agency to facilitate the call and that state agency will receive a share of the phone fees, according to the Prison Phone Justice group.

PHOTO: FILE - An inmate uses a cell phone from a cell at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, August 16, 2016.

An inmate uses a phone from a cell at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., August 16, 2016.

Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The White House has yet to say whether Biden will sign the bill into law.

Kentucky has the highest cost for a 15-minute intrastate call, coming in at $5.70 total, according to Prison Phone Justice. By comparison, the cheapest state to make a 15-minute intrastate call is New Hampshire, with the total cost being just 20 cents.

In 2017, a federal court overturned the FCC’s limit on intrastate phone calls, resulting in much higher costs for inmates making calls within the state.

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

Phone call rates are not paid by inmates but by their families, and because of the 2017 court ruling, the FCC could not regulate the prison phone calling industry on its own except by an act of Congress.

“Jails and prisons charge predatory fees to long-term incarcerated individuals. The call crosses state lines,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in a statement last week. “I expect the Commission to act quickly to implement the regulation as required by the statute shortly after President Biden signs the legislation.”

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

“No family member should have to choose between staying in touch with a loved one incarcerated and paying the bills,” Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said last week. “We must do everything we can to ensure that telephone rates in correctional facilities are fair and reasonable so that family members can stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, improving the chances that rehabilitated offenders can become productive members of the community. society after his release”.

Duckworth introduced the bill with retiring Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who said “the outrageously high rates of prison phone calls create an often impassable barrier between inmates and their families.”

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