May 10, 2021

Duckworth, Portman, Booker, Schatz Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Ensure Just and Reasonable Phone Rates in Criminal Justice System

Legislation Introduced After Mother’s Day Weekend Clarifies FCC Authority to Help Keep Families Connected and Improve Public Safety


[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) today introduced the Martha Reed-Wright Just and Reasonable Communications Act to strengthen the nation’s criminal justice system. This bipartisan bill would help families keep in touch with their incarcerated family members, which studies have shown can help reduce recidivism rates and thereby save taxpayer dollars. This targeted legislation would address long-standing concerns about the prohibitively expensive and predatory price of phone calls that incarcerated individuals at correctional facilities across the U.S. are forced to pay if they want contact their family or friends. The bipartisan legislation would also affirm the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to address a market failure to protect family, clergy and counsel who communicate with prisoners, inmates and detainees and make clear that the obligations of fairness in inmate communications apply to all individuals, including those living with a disability.  

“As we celebrate mothers this week, I hope we keep in our minds the tough choices so many of them are forced to make when trying to connect with an incarcerated loved one,” said Duckworth. “No mother should ever have to make choose between staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one and paying the bills. That’s one reason why I’m proud to be introducing bipartisan legislation today named after Mrs. Martha Wright-Reed, a grandmother who was forced to make difficult choices between extending a weekly lifeline to her incarcerated grandson and buying her much-needed heart medicine. We must do all that we can to ensure that prison phone rates are just and reasonable so family members can afford to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones, improving the chances that rehabilitated offenders will be able to become productive members of society upon their release.”

“This bill is designed to strengthen families and reduce recidivism. Outrageously high prison phone call rates create an often insurmountable barrier between those in prison and their families,” said Portman. “While Ohio has done a good job of tackling this problem, this bill fills a void by helping to solve this problem nationwide. I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass this common-sense, bipartisan solution.”

Video visitation and phone call services in prisons and jails are often unreasonably expensive and far lower quality than the telecommunications services used by the general public. This legislation is named after Martha Wright-Reed, who advocated for more affordable phone rates for more than 20 years. After Martha’s grandson became incarcerated and she discovered how expensive it was to keep in contact with him, she sued the Corrections Corporation of American for their exorbitantly high phone call rates. The FCC announced they were capping interstate prison phone call rates in 2013 after years of hard work by Martha Wright-Reed and other advocates. More information on the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is available here.

“People in prison who are in regular contact with their loved ones are in a better position to rebuild their lives post-incarceration,” said Schatz. “This bill takes down the barrier of obscenely high fees people in prison have to pay to call their kids, parents, and loved ones. It’s good for human rights, it’s good for families, and it’s good for public safety."

“People shouldn’t be cut off from their family because they’re behind bars,” said Booker. “We must make it easier for incarcerated people to stay in touch with their loved ones while serving sentences. Not only is this the compassionate thing to do, but studies have also shown that maintaining family contact during incarceration reduces recidivism. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this bipartisan bill to lower communications rates at prisons and jails across the country to make it more affordable for incarcerated people to maintain their relationships with loved ones.”

The introduction of this legislation follows a federal court’s decision that the Communications Act authorizes FCC to regulate interstate prison calls, but does not clearly authorize the FCC to address intrastate prison telecommunications services. Without such policies in place, inmates and their families are forced to rely on a system that lacks adequate competition and often charges unreasonable rates. The Senators’ bipartisan Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act would correct this issue by ensuring consumers are protected against unfair telecommunications rates. Specifically, this legislation:

  • Ensures consumers receive just and reasonable charges for all intra- and interstate inmate calling, drawing on the existing standard in Section 202 of the Communications Act. 
  • Ensures just and reasonable rates apply regardless of technology used, like video visitation services and other advanced communications services. This also ensures that the needs of inmates with disabilities is addressed. 
  • Permits the FCC to use its traditional procedures and authority to address unjust and unreasonable inmate calling rates.

“We have been encouraged by recent activity in the private sector to reduce prohibitively high call rates for incarcerated individuals, with some companies going as far as offering free calls during the pandemic,” said Heidi Howe, CJM, Chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee at the American Jail Association. “Although we are optimistic that these efforts will continue to gain momentum, many factors contribute to high call rates, and we believe legislative action will be required in order to ensure an equitable approach across the nation. Therefore, the American Jail Association supports the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, which would require the FCC to ensure reasonable charges for call services in all correctional facilities.”   

There is bipartisan agreement among current FCC commissioners that Congress should act to clarify the agency’s authority to do just that, as Duckworth’s new legislation would do. Duckworth has received a commitment from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioners Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks, as well as Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel, to help address unjust and unreasonable inmate call rates.

The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is also co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Angus King (I-ME), Ed Markey (D-MA), Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Organizations from across the political spectrum support the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, including: ACLU, The American Conservative Union, American Jail Association, Americans for Prosperity, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Center for Media Justice, Common Cause, Human Rights Defense Center, Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, NAACP, National Association of Social Workers, Prison Policy Initiative, UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program, Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center and Verizon.