Lower phone call costs are on the horizon for America’s incarcerated people, thanks to new federal legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden in January.
The legislation enshrines the Federal Communications Commission with the authority to set limits on fees for audio and video calls from federal, state, and local correctional facilities throughout the country, according to a January article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“That it has taken us so long to fix this problem is especially shameful,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworce said, according to ABC. “Too many families of incarcerated people must pay outrageous rates to stay connected with their loved ones. This harms the families and children of the incarcerated.”
California’s prisons have been enjoying free phone calls since Jan. 1 due to a new state law. However, phone charges in jails in California, and jails and prisons in most other states remain expensive and inconsistent.
“No family member should ever have to choose between staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one and paying the bills,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., in a statement. Duckworth sponsored the bill along with now-retired Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
The cost of calls can be a serious burden for the incarcerated and their families.
For example, in Michigan, the highest maximum cost for a 15-minute jail phone call is $16.50. On average, the cost for a call from a jail across all states is $3. Prison Policy Institute data shows phone calls in county jails are 1.2 to 20.1 times more expensive on average than in that state’s prisons.
Prison Phone Justice reports that state agencies get a “kickback” from communications fees that contracted companies charge incarcerated people for phone calls, video calls, and electronic messages.
Such communications are big business. One million two-hundred thousand people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons with another 636,300 in its jails, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A Prison Policy Institute report, State of Phone Justice 2022, states that just three telecom corporations control 88% of this market for incarcerated communications. They are Global Tel Link (ViaPath), Securus, and ICSolutions.
The Prison Policy Institute criticizes what it calls the “arbitrary and exploitative” pricing of communications offered by such companies, as well as unfair business practices like ancillary fees, seized funds due to inactivity, and violations of FCC rules.
“At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero … the cost of everyday communication is arguably the worst price-gouging that people behind bars and their loved ones face,” said the report.
“We gathered data showing that while some jails have negotiated rates as low as 1 or 2 cents per minute — proving the possibility of much lower phone rates — the vast majority of jails charge 10 times that amount or more,” the report noted.
These high costs persist despite the fact that it is widely acknowledged that staying in close communication is associated with better outcomes for incarcerated people and their families.
“Meaningful communication and connection with loved ones helps promote rehabilitation, and it also reduces recidivism, which makes our communities safer,” said Vanessa Chen, an assistant to President Biden on criminal justice, according to the Chronicle.
California began reducing the rates for prison phone calls in 2022. However, once phone calls became free in 2023, there was a noticeable increase in family calls by residents in San Quentin’s housing units.
Elvis Martinez explained that now that San Quentin’s phone calls are free, it is much easier for him to stay in touch with his family overseas.
“To call to my land in El Salvador, I can only do it using free minutes, since collect calls are not accepted in my country. Now, I speak daily with my daughter in El Salvador,” Martinez said.
“That helps people behave better. And you can see the difference because free phone calls give me access to other friends or relatives that I couldn’t talk to before and that benefits my rehabilitation,” added Martinez.
The new federal law fulfills a campaign promise made by Biden, who has also recently signed bills aimed to increase police accountability and update security camera systems in federal prisons, according to the Chronicle.
The legislation was named after Martha Wright-Reed, a nurse who tried for decades to get the FCC to lower the cost of such phone calls because she couldn’t afford to talk regularly with her incarcerated grandson.
Before implementation, the FCC must complete the rule-making process, which will determine the final details.