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Inmates and their families would pay less for calls from prison under legislation a Senate panel is debating on Tuesday.
The Federal Communications Commission would for the first time be empowered to regulate all calls made from prisons, jails, and detention centers under a bill (S. 1541) from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
“This is a huge deal,” Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of advocacy organization Worth Rises, said of the bill. “We see really egregious behavior on the part of predatory telecom companies, and the prisons and jails that they contract with.”
Securus Technologies Inc. and Global Tel*Link Corp. are among the companies that operate prison phones.
A U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision in 2017 limited the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state calls, meaning it can only determine whether the rates are just and reasonable for a small fraction of calls made by incarcerated people. The bill set for a vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Tuesday would override the court decision and allow the FCC to also regulate calls made within state lines.
The bill also would clarify that the FCC has statutory authority over advanced communication services, including audio or video communication.
Pricey call fees disproportionately harm racial minorities. Black, Latino, and Native American people are all incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative using U.S. Census Bureau data.
Further, the majority of people in prison are low income, and the poorest among them are women and people of color, the report states.
“These two points taken together make clear that people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, and thus are disproportionately subjected to the high prison and jail phone rates,” said Mike Wessler, Prison Policy Initiative communications director. “They also are more likely to be poor before they were incarcerated, so are less able to afford the high fees.”
The legislation, introduced in May, has one Republican cosponsor — Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio). The National Sheriffs’ Association had opposed the legislation, but Duckworth’s office reached an agreement with the group, clearing a path forward, said Tylek, who has been working with Duckworth.
“We’re glad to have reached an agreement even though we had to make some compromises,” Tylek said, without specifying.
Duckworth on Tuesday will introduce an amendment reflecting the agreement with the group, a spokesperson for her office said.
“For too long we have seen jails and sheriffs carry an unfair burden of blame for costs of calls for inmates,” NSA Executive Director Jonathan Thompson said in an email. “The Senate has demonstrated leadership, and we remain committed to this legislative remedy.”
A similar bill from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) was included in a House-passed pandemic stimulus bill in the last Congress, but it never saw Senate action. Rush reintroduced his measure (H.R. 2489) last year.
The FCC is continuing to solicit comments on how it can ensure just and reasonable rates for out-of-state calls. The commission last May imposed interim caps, bringing down rates in major prisons and jails by more than 30%.
Tylek said her group believes individuals should not have to pay anything, “but that will be a fight for down the line.”
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel in May said the interim rate caps wouldn’t be the commission’s last action.
“I know the road to phone justice has been too hard and taken too long,” Rosenworcel said then. “But also I believe every step counts. Because this is not just an issue of markets and rates; it is a broader issue of social justice.”
Taking further action to address high call prices imposed on incarcerated individuals and their families is a high priority for Rosenworcel, an FCC spokesperson said in an email.
Andrew Small also contributed to this story.
To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi at email@example.com