Senators Push for Free Prison Phone Calls in Next Coronavirus Relief Bill

Originally published in The Intercept on August 7, 2020.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has put into sharp relief an issue criminal justice reformers have been raising for years: the astronomical rates that prison-phone corporations charge for phone and video calls to incarcerated individuals. Now, as Congress debates the next coronavirus stimulus deal, some lawmakers are pushing for provisions to make such calls free.

On Thursday, 17 Democratic senators, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth, sent a letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer urging them to make this a federal priority in the next package.

“Before the pandemic, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for housing and food, and one in 29 children had a parent incarcerated,” the letter stated. “In addition, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt in order to stay connected with them, and women shouldered 87 percent of these costs. Now, as many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic, these calls are more necessary—and cost prohibitive—than ever.”

In some jurisdictions, a local 15-minute phone call can run as high as $25, a cost that was untenable even before the current economic crisis. The Federal Communications Commission currently has jurisdiction to regulate interstate calls, but more than 80 percent of prison phone calls are in-state, meaning the vast majority of calls for the 2 million incarcerated individuals across the U.S. could not be regulated unless Congress changed the law — a challenge highlighted in the senators’ letter.

“Without action from Congress to address the rates for in-state calls, families will continue to suffer,” they wrote.

The pandemic and the nationwide protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder brought significant attention to conditions in U.S. jails and prisons, where there is a disproportionate rate of Covid-19 cases as compared to the broader U.S population; one recent estimate put it at 5.5 times higher. At the same time, the pandemic has made it even harder for incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones, due to the combined stresses of expensive phone calls and the lack of in-person visitation. It’s an issue federal officials have been quietly chipping away at for months.

IN 2015, THE FCC announced it would act to address predatory in-state calling rates, but after telecom companies sued, FCC Chair Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, in 2017 stopped defending his agency’s right to regulate those calls. Later that year, a federal court ruled that the FCC has the authority to regulate interstate prison phone calls but not in-state ones.

In June 2019, Duckworth, along with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; and Angus King, I-Maine, introduced a bill to expand the FCC’s authority to regulate prison phone calls. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is named in honor of Martha Wright, a woman who filed a lawsuit in 2000 against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the FCC to handle, so she then moved to petition the agency to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons.

Little changed following the introduction of Duckworth’s bill last year, but then the pandemic hit. In the first stimulus package authorized by Congress, to advocates’ surprise, language was included to make all phone calls free in federal facilities for the duration of the national emergency.

“It wasn’t clear who led the effort with the CARES Act … but after years of advocacy, the prison phone justice movement certainly has its allies in Congress, and it paid off in a bizarre moment,” said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a group focused on dismantling the prison industry. “Unfortunately, the downside of that bill is that it’s only for the duration of Covid.”

In late March, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a House bill, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, which builds on Duckworth’s legislation. In addition to expanding the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state prison phone calls, Rush’s bill would also bar state and local government agencies from collecting commissions from prison phone calls and set interim rate caps during the pandemic. It was included in the HEROES Act, a supplement to the CARES Act that was passed by the House in May, a measure Tylek called “the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history.”

Meanwhile in the Senate, Duckworth and Klobuchar continued to push on the issue. In mid-April, Duckworth organized a letter, signed by 18 other senators, urging Pai, the FCC chair, to pressure telecommunication providers to commit to reducing call rates in prisons and jails. “The FCC is uniquely positioned to seek commitments from these providers,” the senators wrote. “We applaud the FCC’s efforts to encourage traditional providers to bolster connectivity for Americans impacted by the coronavirus, most notably through the Keep Americans Connected Pledgehowever, this effort does not adequately reflect the dynamics of prison and jail telecommunication systems.”

In May, Klobuchar and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led 27 other senators in sending a bicameral letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE urging them to provide free phone calls to detained people during the pandemic. In the House, Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Zoe Logfren organized 50 colleagues to also sign on.

Then in July, Pai surprised advocates by coming out forcefully on the issue. On July 16, the FCC announced a new proposed rule to significantly lower the per-minute rate caps for interstate prison phone calls, from $.21 (prepaid) and $0.25 (collect) to $0.14 for calls from prisons and $0.16 for calls from jails. The proposed rule would also cap rates for international prison phone calls for the first time. In an accompanying blog post, Pai wrote, “Not surprisingly, without effective regulation, rates for inmate calling services can be unjustly and unreasonably high and make it difficult for inmates and their loved ones to stay connected.”

Four days later, Pai sent a letter to the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a trade association of state utility commissioners, urging the group to take action on the “unjust and unreasonable rates” of in-state prison phone calls, which he noted disproportionately hurt Black Americans. In 33 states, rates are at least double the federal cap, and in 27 states, the first-minute charge can be up to 26 times higher than that of an interstate call. In his letter Pai pointed to recent statements NARUC made following George Floyd’s killing about addressing discrimination and racial injustice. “These are noble sentiments … but it is time for these sentiments to manifest in action,” Pai wrote.

On July 23, NARUC issued a response to Pai’s letter, saying they “agree” and will ask their members to “take a comprehensive review in their jurisdictions around these rates and take action where warranted.” NARUC president Brandon Presley noted that in some states, corrections officials negotiate prison phone call contracts “outside the purview of state public service commissions,” so they would need to be involved, in addition to governors. But NARUC opposes expanding the FCC’s power over in-state prison calls, and in the last few weeks Pai has begun campaigning more vocally for Congress to give his agency that authority. While Pai has not endorsed Duckworth’s bill specifically, he has endorsed the most significant component of her bill. On Thursday the FCC voted to advance the proposed rule to lower interstate prison phone call rates, setting the stage for public comment.

 

Tylek said no activist anticipated this momentum from the FCC. “We can’t say we expected Commissioner Pai would come out and say, ‘State regulators, all of you are writing Black Lives Matter statements but aren’t doing anything about prison phone calls,’” she said, adding, “Having a pro-industry, Trump-appointee conservative acknowledging the issue is very positive for the movement and a welcome change.”

Pressure has continued to ramp up in the Senate to get this included in the next stimulus package. Advocates are planning to deliver a petition to Congress next week with over 75,000 signatures urging the passage of phone justice legislation, and this past Tuesday, Klobuchar formally signed onto Duckworth’s bill, and joined her in circulating the Dear Colleague letter on Thursday. Advocates say they are particularly excited about Klobuchar’s leadership since she has a good record of being able to corral Republicans onto legislation.

The real Republican gatekeeper on this issue is Sen. Roger Wicker, the chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Tylek says Wicker’s office has met with them, but he has not committed to support the legislation. Wicker’s office did not return requests for comment. 

Climate Advocates Are Gearing Up for the Next Stimulus Package

Originally published in In These Times on April 9, 2020.
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With Congress planning to reconvene later this month to hash out another coronavirus stimulus bill, climate activists have begun discussing how they might assert themselves more successfully into the next federal package.

Progressive climate advocates tried to shape the debate leading up to the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27. A few days before the president signed it, dozens of climate groups, including 350.org, Sunrise Movement and the BlueGreen Alliance, joined in coalition with hundreds of left-leaning organizations in releasing “Five Principles for Just Covid-19 Relief and Stimulus.” The fourth of these five principles called for creating good jobs while tackling “the climate crisis that is compounding threats to our economy and health.” Their demands—grouped under the banner of a “People’s Bailout”—included new federal investments in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, expanding wind and solar, and restoring wetlands and forests. The organizations also called for requirements that industries reduce their climate emissions and pollution in exchange for aid.

Soon after, a coalition of scientists, academics and wonks released a “Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy”—a detailed “policy menu” that lays out specific climate and inequality-conscious ways to spend new federal investment. The ideas draw from proposals put forward from nine Democratic presidential candidates, including Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Most of the physical work proposed here cannot begin immediately,” their letter acknowledges. “We must focus on halting the spread of deadly illness. However, we can do all the preparatory work now to make green projects ‘shovel ready.’”

Daniel Aldana Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor and one of the 11 co-authors of the Green Stimulus, told In These Times that many of the drafters were influenced by Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, which centers on how leaders often exploit national crises to advance destructive policies when citizens are too distracted to fight back.

“During a crisis people turn to ideas lying around, and the oil CEOs are not waiting for the virus to stop before pushing their ideas,” Aldana Cohen said. “We knew we had to get something out more quickly.” Their thinking was maybe their climate proposals would influence discussions around the CARES Act, also known as “Stimulus 3”—but more likely their proposals could help influence subsequent stimulus packages that lawmakers have signaled they plan to negotiate. Knowing that it can take much longer for organizations to sign on to detailed policy agendas (rather than to broad principles), Aldana Cohen said Green Stimulus authors sought to “mobilize as wonks” and then invite climate leaders to sign on as individuals.

Stimulus 3 ended up being tough for climate advocates, not only because they emerged winning none of their more visionary demands, but also because Republicans attacked them for politicizing the crisis and stalling relief.

A central fight ended up being over whether Congress should require airlines to cut their emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2050 in exchange for billions in rescue aid. The airline industry has committed to this target voluntarily, but climate advocates want it stipulated in law.

Such legally-mandated conditions have precedent. During the 2008 auto industry bailout, General Motors and Chrysler had to accept new fuel-efficiency standards in exchange for federal aid. But lawmakers in late March said they wanted to focus on getting immediate relief out to workers, hospitals, and businesses—and publicly charged climate advocates with derailing that effort.

“[Democrats] are holding up voting for this emergency bill to help the American people in terms of the economy and in terms of our health care over solar panels and wind turbines, a green new deal about airline emissions,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso in a speech on the floor.

“Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” accused Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats countered by pointing to Senate Republicans who, in the midst of negotiations, inserted a $3 billion provision for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which are federally-owned oil stocks stored underground along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. After this, climate advocates ramped up pressure for aid to clean energy industries, Melinda Pierce, the legislative director for the Sierra Club, told In These Times.

In the end, the $3 billion for the oil industry was scrapped, as were tax breaks for wind and solar, and demands for airline emission reductions. Climate advocates were left bruised from the fight.

“The airline conversation ended up being a debate about [carbon] offsets which is not the terrain that Green New Deal advocates want to be fighting on,” said Aldana Cohen, who urged for more focus around job creation and job protections. “We should be focusing on investments that lift up workers and communities,” he said.

Pierce said she and other climate advocates understood their demands for clean energy aid “were outside the scope of what leadership thought consisted emergency relief” and that enviros had originally been “very much aligned” with the idea that Stimulus 3 should focus primarily on swift aid to workers, families, healthcare and frontline businesses.

“Yet when the oil industry tried to inject $3 billion to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we were activated beyond those goal about workers to make sure [lawmakers] weren’t providing corporate bailouts,” she said, noting enviros also fought for accountability for billions granted to the Federal Reserve for corporate assistance. “We were fighting those battles because oil and gas were bellying up to the bar to their cronies in Congress,” Pierce said.

While some Congressional Democrats touted the accountability measures they managed to win, Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, said the end result was a disaster.

“The guardrails for workers and communities are weak, and the guardrails for climate are nonexistent,” he said. “As a result of the stimulus bill we are all entering an even stranger and more frightening world.” Ross specifically noted how the new federal aid could potentially give cash-strapped drillers a fresh injection of subsidized credit.

Looking ahead

Though climate advocates failed to win green demands in Stimulus 3, many are looking ahead to future stimulus packages, where they believe they could be more successful. President Trump and House Speaker Pelosi initially indicated the next bill could focus on infrastructure investment, though more recently Pelosi has walked that back.

On March 31, four days after signing the CARES Act, President Trump tweeted that, “With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4.”

The following day, Pelosi proposed reviving House Democrats’ $760 billion infrastructure bill released in January, which would include new investments in things like rail, transit, and broadband. However just two days later she signaled she had changed her mind, and maybe infrastructure should not be Democrats’ next priority. “I’m very much in favor of doing some of the things that we need to do to meet the needs of clean water, more broadband, and the rest of that,” she said on April 3. “That may have to be for a bill beyond this.”

Ross of Friends of the Earth thinks climate advocates should be careful in how they move forward, and focus their efforts on securing aid for people and preventing bailouts for polluters. “The question isn’t how to invest in climate, the question is how to invest in workers and a more resilient society,” he said. “That certainly has implications for climate, but at this moment of unprecedented immediate suffering, it likely shouldn’t be first on anyone’s mind.”

Pierce of the Sierra Club said if polluting industries need more federal aid in subsequent stimulus packages, they will continue to push for conditions. “We fully expect the airline industry is going to need an additional tranche of support and if we’re funneling tax dollars, we truly believe we should be funneling tax dollars in a way that is building industry of the future,” she said.

How intently climate advocates should push a “Green New Deal” remains in dispute, as the phrase itself has become deeply polarizing in Congress, even though the specific ideas undergirding it are broadly popular.

Aldana Cohen said he and his collaborators deliberately opted for “Green Stimulus” over “Green New Deal.” He pointed to Data for Progress polling showing Republican support for Green New Deal-like ideas when they’re not labeled as such.

“I think our view is you don’t want to have the vocabulary prejudge an argument that you believe you otherwise win,” he said. “You want to go in and focus on the substance.”

Not all Green New Deal supporters are ready to scale back on the slogan, with some saying now is precisely the time to elevate it, and resist the GOP’s bad-faith mischaracterizations.

“This is a pivotal moment to grapple with the fact that our economy was not working well and was not resilient in the face of crisis,” said Lauren Maunus, the legislative manager for Sunrise Movement. “Republicans are using the Green New Deal as a wedge issue and villainizing it, and it’s our utmost priority to clarify that the Green New Deal has always been about a plan to fight economic inequality and create millions of good family-sustaining jobs to put our country on a path to a safer, and healthier future.”