"The predatory correctional telecom industry has avoided regulation for too long, and families have paid the exorbitant price," said one supporter of the legislation.
Justice campaigners celebrated Thursday after U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill empowering federal regulators to ensure that charges for video and audio calls from correctional and detention facilities are "just and reasonable."
Named for a late nurse who fought for lower rates after struggling to afford phone calls with her incarcerated grandson, the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022 was sent to Biden's desk last month.
The measure, led by U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), amends the Communications Act of 1934 to require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "to ensure just and reasonable charges."
\u201cNEW: @POTUS has signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act to reform the exploitative prison phone rates charged to incarcerated people and their loved ones.\n\nWe thank all who championed this critically important legislation. https://t.co/suztvTG4tQ\u201d— The Leadership Conference (@The Leadership Conference) 1672957596
"Words could never express or begin to explain the incredible magnitude of power and support in this bill," said Wright-Reed's grandson Ulandis Forte, who is no longer incarcerated, after Congress passed the legislation. "A multitude of family and friends will be positively impacted by the passing of this bill and the journey to get there."
"Many will never understand the sleepless nights and ongoing struggle it has taken to bring this wonderful day to fruition," Forte added. "To God be the glory, and I'm so grateful for a moment in history that will never be forgotten."
As The Associated Press detailed Thursday:
The FCC must still go through the rule-making process before the changes can be officially made. In 2013, FCC capped 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.
Today, "Kentucky has the highest cost for a 15-minute call, at $5.70, and $9.99 for a cellphone call," according to the AP.
"It's unacceptable for anyone to have to choose between necessities like rent or healthcare and connecting with their loved ones," Jesselyn McCurdy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in December, declaring that the legislation's passage "will correct this injustice and be life-changing for incarcerated individuals and their families."
Along with celebrating what the measure will mean to those struggling to pay for reaching their loved ones, campaigners have continued to condemn what Cheryl A. Leanza, policy adviser of the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry, called "the predatory behavior of companies serving incarcerated people and their families."
Sakira Cook, vice president of policy and government at Color of Change, pointed out that "prison telecommunications services profit from vulnerable families trying to stay in touch with their loved ones, generating $1.4 billion annually."
\u201cA thread \ud83e\uddf5:\n1/4 #ICYMI Last week, we took a major step forward in the fight for #PrisonPhoneJustice with the passing of the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022.\n\nSo what does this mean, and why is it so important?\u201d— ColorOfChange (@ColorOfChange) 1672514139
"Incarcerated people and their loved ones have paid the price, literally, for the predatory behavior by the correctional telecom industry for far too long," said Heather Franklin, internet campaign director at Free Press Action. "The ability for incarcerated people to maintain regular communication with their loved ones, counsel, and clergy is a human rights issue."
Worth Rises executive director Bianca Tylek agreed that "the predatory correctional telecom industry has avoided regulation for too long, and families have paid the exorbitant price."
"This legislation will bring extraordinary relief to families with incarcerated loved ones—parents and children especially—who need to stay connected," Tylek added. "Those connections are important to the strength of families, well-being of people inside, and their mutual success upon reentry. Their success benefits us all."
\u201cIt\u2019s official! Biden just signed the Martha Wright Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act to grant the @FCC full regulatory authority over prison and jail phone and video calls. The FCC now has 18 months to take action to protect families. https://t.co/nOmcx3R5HU\u201d— Worth Rises (@Worth Rises) 1672961369
Charles Sullivan, president of International CURE, noted that the legislation is also "essential to preparing for jobs and housing when a person is released."
made similar points after the bill was sent to Biden, saying that "we must do all that we can to ensure that phone rates in correctional facilities are just and reasonable so family members can afford to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones, improving the chances that rehabilitated offenders will be able to become productive members of society upon their release."