President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday that aims to ease the cost of inmates calling family and friends.
The legislation clarifies that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate and international communications by cable, radio, television, satellite and wire, can set limits on charges for audio and video calls in correctional facilities.
Phone calls from prisons and jails are a lifeline for the incarcerated, but costs vary widely and can be a financial burden for families already struggling to make ends meet with an adult behind bars. Right now, Kentucky has the highest cost for a 15-minute call, at $5.70, and $9.99 for a cell phone call, while New Hampshire only charges 20 cents for the same amount of time.
There are more than 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, and tens of thousands more are incarcerated in prisons across the country awaiting trial or sentencing.
Less likely to commit crime
The COVID-19 pandemic froze prison visits, forcing inmates to rely heavily on phone calls, and the health crisis put a spotlight on the disparities in state and federal phone costs. Studies by prison reform advocates and academics have shown that visits and phone calls with loved ones reduce the likelihood that a person will reoffend.
The legislation bodes well for the campaign trail from Biden, who also recently signed a bill requiring the federal Bureau of Prisons to overhaul outdated security systems and fix broken surveillance cameras. Earlier last year, he signed an executive order intended to improve police accountability.
“Meaningful communication and connection with loved ones helps promote rehabilitation, and it also reduces recidivism, making our communities safer,” said Vanessa Chen, special assistant to the president for criminal justice and gun policy.
Martha Wright-Reed Act
Called The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022, the bill was sponsored by Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, and recently retired senator. Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio. It was named in honor of Martha Wright-Reed, a retired nurse who for more than two decades tried to get cheaper rates because she could not afford to call her incarcerated grandson at a cost of more than $100 per month.
“No family member should ever have to choose between staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one and paying the bills,” Duckworth said in a statement, adding that the new law will help ensure phone rates are “reasonable”.
The FCC must still go through the rulemaking process before the changes can be officially made. In 2013, the FCC capped rates at 25 cents per minute, which meant a 15-minute call cost $3.75; before that, it was about $17 on average, about 10 times more than the average price per minute. The prison’s telecommunications companies challenged the decision in court, arguing that the FCC had no right to regulate the calls.
In 2015, then-FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn told lawmakers she supported measures to contain costs. “Incarceration is a family issue, an economic issue, a community issue. The biggest impact of an inmate’s sentence is often on the loved ones left behind,” she said.
In 2017, under President Donald Trump, the FCC abandoned its fight to reduce the cost of prison phone calls. A federal appeals court ultimately ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to cap rates.
The legislation signed by Biden gives the federal agency the authority that the appeals court said it lacked, the White House said.