WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law a bill aimed at easing the cost for prisoners to call family and friends.
The legislation clarifies that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate and international communications through cable, radio, television, satellite and wire, can set limits for fees on audio and video calls inside corrections facilities.
Phone calls from prisons and jails are a lifeline for those incarcerated, but the cost varies widely and can be a financial drain on families already struggling to make ends meet with an adult behind bars. Right now, Kentucky has the highest cost for a 15-minute call, at $5.70, and $9.99 for a cellphone call, while New Hampshire charges only 20 cents for the same amount of time.
There are more than 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, and tens of thousands more are incarcerated in jails nationwide awaiting trials or sentencings.
The COVID-19 pandemic froze prison visits, forcing inmates to rely heavily on phone calls, and the health crisis spotlighted the disparities in state and federal phone charges. Studies by prison reform advocates and academics have shown that visitation and phone calls with loved ones decrease the likelihood that a person will commit crime again.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and just retired-Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. It was named in honor of Martha Wright-Reed, a retired nurse who tried for more than two decades to get more affordable rates because she could not afford to call her incarcerated grandson at the cost of more than $100 per month.
The FCC must still go through the rule-making process before the changes can be officially made. In 2013, FCC caped rates at 25 cents per minute, which meant a 15-minute call cost $3.75; before that it was roughly $17 on average, about 10 times more than the average per-minute rate. Prison telecommunication companies challenged the decision in court, claiming the FCC didn’t have the right to regulate the calls.
In 2015, then-FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn told lawmakers she supported measures to cap the costs. "Incarceration is a family matter, an economic matter, a societal matter. The greatest impact of an inmate’s sentence is often on the loved ones who are left behind,” she said.
In 2017, under President Donald Trump, the FCC abandoned the fight to lower the cost for prison phone calls. A federal appeals court eventually ruled the FCC didn't have the authority to cap the rates.
The legislation signed by Biden gives the federal agency the authority that the appellate court ruled it lacked, the White House said.