New Law Offers a Fix for the Prison Phone Racket

The bill gives the FCC the power to set standards for the prison phone industry which has been massively overcharging prisoners and their families for decades.

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A hand presses the keys of a blue prison phone.
Telecom companies have managed to make prisoners and their families pay exorbitant rates to talk on the phone or through electronic video calls. A new law may change everything once its finally put in place.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

In the United States’ massive, inhumane, and money-grubbing prison industry, telecom companies have charged exorbitant prices to let inmates connect with their friends and family on the outside. A new bipartisan bill that managed to squeak its way through congress may finally provide relief for the folks who just want to connect.

Congress passed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act on Dec. 22, which gives the Federal Communications Commission power to “ensure just and reasonable charges” for phone calls or other electronic communications like Zoom calls in prisons. Multiple advocacy groups have applauded the bill, and though this is good news for incarcerated people and their families, the bill’s language stipulates that it should not be implemented “earlier than 18 months,” from when it’s signed, or sometime in the middle of 2024.

Specifically, the FCC can set standards for prison calls to align with the industry-wide average cost for phone services. For years, the prison phone industry, which included the likes of big telecom companies like ViaPath Technologies, NCIC, and Pay Tel. These companies have been raking in $1.4 billion a year in phone call revenue, according to a 2021 report from Business Insider citing the advocacy group Worth Rises.

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According to a recent report from the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative, a 15-minute prison phone call could cost over $2.60 in New York on average—which is on the low end—or $3.15 in Idaho. It’s even worse for jails. In New York, a 15-minute jail call could cost four times as much as a prison. It’s over five times as expensive in California, though the prices for both jail and prison have notably come down in recent years thanks to some action by the FCC and state legislation. In 2014, the FCC capped out-of-state rates for prison phone calls. Some states are going further than the new federal law as well. California passed a bill earlier this year that will make prison phone calls free of charge. The law is set to start in 2023.

The problem has long been the profit-seeking correctional facilities themselves. Most states let both public and private prisons select their own telecom companies, and as the Prison Policy Initiative mentions, “jails and prisons often choose their telecom providers on the basis of which company will pay the facility the most money in kickbacks.” The companies had been charging fees not just to connect to people in prison, but to set up or add funds to phone accounts. The FCC has limited these fees and put caps on the total amount companies could charge, and some states like New Jersey have barred facilities from taking commissions from telecom companies.

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In a statement, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency had previously “been limited in the extent to which we can address rates for calls made within a state’s borders.” The new law will let the FCC close the “detrimental loophole” in phone rates for people in prison.

There has been a bevy of research to show that incarcerated people are better off when they have contact with family and friends. There have been studies going back decades showing that people in prison with constant family contact are less likely to return to prison after release.

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Beyond recidivism, studies like a 2020 report in the Journal of Family Psychology note the obvious psychological benefits for prisoners who talk with family members.

The bill was named after Martha Wright-Reed, a grandmother of a man incarcerated for over 20 years who paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to talk with her grandson every Sunday. She organized and worked to reform the prison phone call system in 2015.

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The bill still needs to be signed by President Biden.