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New bill could give FCC authority to regulate price of prison calls

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The billion dollar prison phone call industry could soon face new regulations. That’s because some, like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, contend telecommunications companies have long been charging “predatory” fees for phone and video calls from inmates.

For decades, phone providers have offered kickbacks to prisons and local governments using the money they collect from those attempting to get in touch with incarcerated people, according to Prison Phone Justice. In some instances, jails and prisons have been known to choose their providers based on how much revenue they are promised to receive back.

In order to offer these detention facilities greater incentives, phone companies charge more. As a result, individuals from low-income backgrounds get disproportionally impacted by these higher rates, as the Center for Community Change found that 67% of those detained in jails report annual incomes of under $12,000 prior to arrest. Meanwhile, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average cost of a 15-minute phone call from jail is around three dollars, with inmates still having to pay additional charges for setting up and funding the prepaid phone accounts required to make their calls.

So a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has drafted the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022. It would grant the Federal Communications Commission the authority to “ensure just and reasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in correctional and detention facilities.” The legislation also amends the Communications Act of 1934 to cover both phone and video calls.

Led by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Rob Portman (R-OH), the bill passed through Congress last week and just needs President Joe Biden’s signature to become law. That presidential approval is expected to come, and the FCC has already voiced support for its anticipated new authority in helping “to address this terrible problem.”

“Thanks to the leadership of Senators Duckworth, Portman and their bipartisan coalition, the FCC will be granted the authority to close this glaring, painful, and detrimental loophole in our phones rate rules for incarcerated people,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Too many families of incarcerated people must pay outrageous rates to stay connected with their loved ones.”

This is not the first step taken by the FCC to halt these practices. In 2021 the agency put a cap on prison phone call prices and has supported the efforts of individual states, such as California and Connecticut, in making these calls free to all.

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