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Congress could finally do something about the exorbitant cost of jail calls

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For nearly 20 years, Martha Wright-Reed struggled to pay for the phone calls to her incarcerated grandson, Ulandis Forte. He was cooped up too far away for frequent visits, so phone calls were the main way to keep in touch. But a few 15-minute phone calls a week cost $200 a month, and Wright-Reed had to choose between paying for her medication or talking to her grandson.

Wright-Reed has since passed away and her grandson is out of prison. But a bill bearing her name would lower the cost of phone calls in jails and jails, and it could be headed for a Senate vote.

Last month, the Martha Wright-Reed Fair and Fair Communications Act acquitted the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with bipartisan support, the furthest that legislation of this kind has achieved in the Senate. If the law were signed, the bill would restore the power of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the cost of all calls made by inmates from jails and jails.

Although free or low-cost phone calls are possible for most non-incarcerated people who have access to a cell phone and internet, calls are possible in most jails and jails forbidden expensive. As of 2018 the average cost of a 15 minute call from prison was $5.74. That’s because a small number of private, for-profit companies have near-monopoly control of the prison phone industry.

“We need to be clear about how prisons are making loved ones disappear and families are breaking up, especially black and brown families,” Forte wrote in a 2019 comment. “This isolation from the very communities that offer love and support to incarcerated individuals does not facilitate rehabilitation; it only causes further pain.”

The high cost of calling disproportionately harms Black people incarcerated in state prisons almost five times as high of whites in the US Incarcerated people are paid pennies an hour for their work, making costly phone calls even more prohibitive. In many states, visits remain suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving phone calls as the only way to keep in touch with loved ones.

“We know that when inmates can stay in touch with family members, you reduce recidivism,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who introduced the law, told HuffPost. “And yet we make it as difficult as possible for them to keep in touch because we’re so incredibly expensive to call from prisons and unreachable for the average family.”

There is a separate bill waiting for movement in the housesponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), which would prohibit detention centers from receiving commissions from communications providers for calls made by incarcerated individuals and would impose rate caps on those calls.

Incarcerated people cannot shop around for the best rates – they are limited to the provider their prison selects. Prison phone contracts are typically not given to the provider with the lowest price, but to whoever offers to share the highest percentage of their earnings. This practice, known as “Site Commission Agreements,‘ is strongly reminiscent of private phone companies paying bribes to prison systems in order to secure lucrative business.

“The high cost of these calls is disrupting the economic well-being of those on the outside who are ill-positioned to bear the enormous costs of speaking to their incarcerated loved ones,” Rush told HuffPost.

In 2000, Wright-Reed became the lead plaintiff in a Class action suit against prison phone companies and the Corrections Corporation of America, arguing that the exorbitant call charges were unconstitutional. The judge in the case referred the plaintiffs to the FCC. The process with the FCC dragged on for years, with little progress. When Wright-Reed and its competitors asked the FCC to cap the cost of calls, law enforcement officials argued they were running out of money.

When President Barack Obama took office, he named Mignon Clyburn an FCC. Clyburn made prison justice over the phone a priority. In 2013, the FCC tuned Limit international calls to 25 cents per minute. At the time, Clyburn credited Wright-Reed with pioneering the movement that brought about this change. Two years later, the FCC voted in favor lid Out-of-state and in-state jail calls are 11 cents per minute and jail calls are 14 to 22 cents per minute, depending on the size of the facility. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who previously worked as a lawyer for prison telecommunications giant Securus Technologiesvoted against FCC reforms.

Before the tariff caps could go into effect, several prison phone companies sued the FCC. While the case was still ongoing, President Donald Trump took office and named Pai chairman of the FCC. pai announced in 2017 that the agency would no longer defend state rate caps in court. Months later, an appeals court ruled 2-1 decision to lift the 2015 rate caps and found that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate domestic calls. The 2013 international calling caps remained in place, but the overwhelming majority of calls from jails and jails are domestic calls.

Rush has introduced bills nine times since 2005 to address the high cost of phone calls in jails and jails, but has failed to push through any of them. “There is an organized resistance by sheriffs and local law enforcement groups who are reaping tremendous benefits from their unholy alliance with these phone companies,” Rush said.

Following the 2017 court ruling, congressional passage of a bill that would specifically authorize the FCC to regulate intrastate calls gained renewed urgency. Duckworth contacted the National Sheriffs’ Association – a group that previously threatened Reprisals against prisoners if call charges were regulated – and asked them to hear them.

“I went up to them when they were originally absolutely against it, and I just said, ‘Please listen to what I have to say, let me come to one of your meetings,'” Duckworth said of the sheriffs group. “We stayed in close contact for about three years, working back and forth, refining, writing, rewriting the bill over and over again – until we got to a point where we could both agree on it.”

The Duckworth Legislature has a Republican co-sponsor, Senator Rob Portman (Ohio). have phone justice advocates welcomed the advancement of Duckworth’s bill, but also hope for a vote on Rush’s bill.

“This law, if enacted into law, will play an important role in curbing the outrageous and predatory rates being imposed on families who are already struggling and will offer some measure of sanity in a totally broken market,” said Cheryl Leanza, policy adviser the United Church of Christ Media Justice Department said in a statement. “The Compromise Amendment restores the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to set fair and reasonable rates as it should. We look forward to positive votes throughout the Senate and House of Representatives where Rep. Rush’s bill, HR 2489, is ready for implementation.”

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/prison-phone-calls-cost-bill_n_6258af4ae4b0723f801745e6 Congress could finally do something about the exorbitant cost of jail calls

Mike Fahey

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