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. 

Free Prison Calls Could Be Coming to Connecticut

Originally published in The Intercept on April 2, 2019.
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CONNECTICUT MAY SOON be the first state in the nation to make calls from prison free for incarcerated people and their families, following on the heels of New York City, which became the first city to do so last year. Decades of research have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones while incarcerated greatly improves an individual’s chance for successful re-entry when they are released and that the financial toll of maintaining contact disproportionately falls on low-income family members.

A hearing for the bill — H.B. No. 6714 — was held in Hartford in late March, and advocates are cautiously optimistic it will be voted out of the state’s House Judiciary Committee next week. The bill was introduced by Rep. Josh Elliott, a progressive elected in 2016 to represent Connecticut’s 88th District, and drafted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system.

According to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut charges more for in-prison phone calls than any other state in the nation aside from Arkansas. A 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, nearly five times the cost of calls from prisons in neighboring states like Rhode Island and New York (71 cents and 65 cents, respectively). Advocates say the high rates are due to Connecticut poorly negotiating its telecommunications contract with Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation it has contracted with since 2012.

In addition to making phone calls free, the bill includes language stipulating that if Connecticut implements video conferencing for prisoners in the future — which it doesn’t currently offer, but other states have slowly begun to — then those communications should be free of charge too. The bill also maintains that Connecticut shall not limit in-person visitation if it makes phone calls and video conferences free. (The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 74 percent of U.S. correctional facilities have reduced or eliminated in-person visitation since implementing video conferencing.)

A Securus spokesperson noted that their company offers not only a way for families to keep in touch but also “critical security features that prevent victim harassment, violent crime and other criminal activity.” With respect to the jurisdictions considering paying directly using taxpayer funds, the Securus spokesperson said, “we welcome discussions regarding financing models with all the agencies we serve, in order to determine the most effective way to pay for technology that keeps people both connected and safe.”

Karen Martucci, the director of external affairs for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said her agency “is supportive of efforts that increase communication between offenders and their loved ones, which will hopefully help to reduce the rate of recidivism.”

State data shows that Connecticut residents pay roughly $15 million annually for prison phone calls, with the state taking 68 percent as a kickback. A spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch testified at the hearing that losing prison phone call commission fees would result in cutting several important adult probation officer positions, illustrating how the state relies on revenue extracted from incarcerated people and their families.

One Republican legislator, Rep. Craig Fishbein from Wallingford, raised objections at the hearing and suggested that the bill would be too expensive and would seemingly allow for unlimited calls every day. He suggested making calls free on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, instead.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, dismissed Fishbein’s proposal and told The Intercept that his comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what advocates aim to achieve with the legislation.

“This bill was not introduced so people can talk on Christmas. It’s so family ties can be fostered, which we know leads to so many improved outcomes for children with incarcerated parents, for people on the inside to lower recidivism, and improving re-entry outcomes on the outside,” she said. “None of that is resolved with a few free days throughout the year.”

THE EXORBITANT COST of prison phone calls exacts a heavy psychic price as well. Some prisoners are able to use their meager prison wages to cover the costs, which leaves them with no savings when they finish their sentence. Many, though, must rely on family members to pick up the tab. Every minute they’re on the phone, they’re aware of the literal cost their incarceration is putting on their loved ones, straining the types of relationships that are key to re-entry.

If the state of Connecticut assumed the costs of prison phone calls, Tylek said, it should revise its contract with Securus or another company to be a flat, fixed rate.

“It would be absolutely inappropriate and imprudent for the state to continue to pay for a contract that assumes the liability of costs on a per-minute basis,” she said. “Think about your state legislature. All elected officials have telephones in their offices, and some provider, maybe it’s Verizon or AT&T — that provider isn’t saying to the state legislator you’ll pay on a per-minute basis. In no place in the country are we doing that except in prisons.”

Tylek also dismissed the idea that this would mean people would have unfettered access to phones, noting prisons still need to establish systems so that the phones can be shared equitably. Tylek suggested that a solution may be limiting phone use to 90 minutes per day (or up to six 15-minute phone calls). “We’ve done surveys across the country and found that, on average, 90-120 minutes is what people are looking for, so we might actually look to codify something like that in the bill,” she said.

New York City passed a law in August 2018 to eliminate the charge for prison phone calls, making it the first city to do so; the change is set to go into effect in May. New York City will assume the costs of paying Securus for the phone services and will forego the $5 million it had annually collected in commission fees.

Aside from Connecticut and New York City, other states and cities are now also considering eliminating phone costs on prisoners and their families, including Massachusetts and San Francisco. In November, Shelby County, Tennessee, announced it would no longer charge juvenile detainees and their families for making phone calls; shortly thereafter, in North Carolina, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office also agreed to stop charging juveniles in custody at county jails for using phones.

The new legislative traction comes after years of activists raising alarm about the high costs of prison phone calls. In 2000, Martha Wright, a grandmother in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying that the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the Federal Communications Commission to handle; she then moved to petition them to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons. Two years later, the FCC also capped the amount an incarcerated person could be charged for calling someone within their state.

The major prison telecommunication providers — including Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link, and CenturyLink — all challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate the rates, and in 2017, the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against the FCC. As The Intercept reported at the time, the court decision came amid political turnover at the federal agency, with the individual who voted against the FCC’s 2013 proposal, Ajit Pai, having been recently named commission chair by President Donald Trump. Pai praised the D.C Circuit for agreeing with him that the FCC overstepped its authority.

Last month, the National Consumer Law Center issued a new report detailing consumer abuses wrought by private companies that extract profits from the criminal legal system and highlighted the kickbacks that cash-strapped governments accept in exchange for things like offering exclusive contracts.

Report author Brian Highsmith, who testified in favor of Connecticut’s bill to make prison phone calls free, told The Intercept that it’s important for the public to understand that this is not just a criminal justice issue, but a fiscal policy and consumer protection issue too.

“Candidly, that changes the advocacy strategy,” he said. “One of the reasons we have arrived at this moment, in having created a system of mass incarceration and social control, is because it’s very easy for people to imagine that this stuff doesn’t affect you, and so many of these abusive practices have escaped widespread public awareness.”

While Highsmith thinks there can be a role for the federal government to play, he emphasized that many of these exploitative policies are set at the state and local level, and so will have to be tackled with laws like the ones proposed in Connecticut.

“This all really gets at the intersection of two of the worst trends,” he said. “One is offloading tasks to the private sector, which comes with reduced accountability and transparency, and the other is cost-shifting,” where governments rely on bails, fines, and fees imposed on people who interact with the criminal legal system to cover the costs of policing.