June 11, 2019

Duckworth, Portman, Booker, Schatz, Markey & King Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Address Predatory Phone Rates in Criminal Justice System

Legislation Clarifies FCC Authority to Help Reduce Recidivism and Improve Public Safety


[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Angus King (I-ME) today introduced the Martha Wright-Reed 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 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. The legislation also makes clear that the obligations of fairness in inmate communications apply to all individuals, including those living with a disability.  

“The vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released, and it’s only common-sense that—once they’ve repaid their debt to society—we should do whatever we can to ensure they do not return to a life of crime and instead have a chance to succeed,” said Senator Duckworth. “Preserving contact with family members during incarceration can help make that a reality, but market failures unique to the prison telecommunications industry can make that more difficult. Fortunately, there is bipartisan agreement that the law should be clarified to enable the FCC to finally address those market failures. Our bipartisan legislation will help make sure that prison telecommunication rates are just and reasonable so family members can more easily 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 are often unreasonably expensive and far lower quality than the telecommunications services used by the general public. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai affirmed his commitment to addressing these issues during his nomination hearing and welcomed Congress providing the FCC with the authority to establish rules for intrastate prison calls. More information on the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is available here. 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.

“Incarcerated Americans rely on calling services to maintain support systems and bonds with their families — connections that have proven to reduce recidivism and prison violence,” said Booker. “Yet our broken criminal justice system allows these calling services to charge exorbitant and prohibitively expensive rates that are as high as $400 to $500 per month. Our bipartisan bill would address this long-standing injustice by allowing the FCC to protect consumers against these unfair rates. Specifically, our bill makes it clear that ‘fairness’ under the Communications Act is about more than providing ample compensation to service providers. Fairness means never forcing people like the late Martha Wright-Reed to choose between paying for their medication and staying in contact with their loved ones in prison. The goal of promoting competition among payphone providers shouldn’t come at the expense of subjecting incarcerated Americans to outrageous prices.”

“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. “In other words, they are less likely to return to crime,” said Senator Schatz, the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. “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."

“Keeping incarcerated people connected with their family support systems reduces recidivism and prison violence,” Markey said. “For many inmates, a phone line is a lifeline, connecting them to loved ones when they are far away. Sadly, phone calls between inmates and their families are ridiculously high, isolating inmates and creating obstacles to rehabilitation. This legislation will help ensure phone call rates are fair and that this critical connection to friends and family can be counted on.”

“By charging inmates an exorbitant price to call with their loved ones, we are making it harder for them to stay connected to the support systems they will rely on after they are released,” said King. “This increased isolation makes it harder for these men and women to successfully rehabilitate and become productive members of society, and increases the chances that they may return to prison. This legislation would help set up former inmates to succeed after they serve their time, keep our streets safer, and save taxpayer dollars – it’s a worthwhile, bipartisan effort, and one that should be enacted into law.”

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.

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. At a U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee oversight hearing in August of 2018, Duckworth received a commitment from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Jessica Rosenworcel, Brendan Carr and Chairman Ajit Pai to help address unjust and unreasonable inmate call rates.

“The rates that families of incarcerated persons pay for phone service is outrageous,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “The cost of a single phone call can be as much as what most of us pay for an unlimited monthly plan.  It’s shameful that the Federal Communications Commission insists it is powerless to correct this problem and refuses to right this wrong.  So it’s terrific news that Senators Duckworth, Portman, Schatz, Booker, King, and Markey have stepped in and are leading the way to fix this injustice with legislative action.”                                                                                 

The following organizations support the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act: American Jail Association, Center for Media Justice, Common Cause, Fair and Just Prosecution, Free Press Action Fund, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD), Human Rights Defense Center, Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, INCOMPAS, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, NAACP, National Association of the Deaf, National CURE, National Hispanic Media Coalition, NCIC Inmate Communications, New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, Prison Policy Initiative, Public Knowledge, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI), United Church of Christ, OC Inc., Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center, Verizon and Working Narratives.