Portman, Duckworth Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Address Predatory Phone Rates in Criminal Justice System 

Legislation Clarifies FCC Authority to Help Reduce Recidivism and Improve Public Safety

June 11, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) today introduced the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act to strengthen the nation’s criminal justice system. This bipartisan bill would help families keep in touch with their incarcerated family members, which studies have shown can help reduce recidivism rates and thereby save taxpayer dollars. This targeted legislation would address long-standing concerns about the prohibitively expensive and predatory price of phone calls that incarcerated individuals at correctional facilities across the U.S. are forced to pay if they want contact their family or friends. The bipartisan legislation would affirm the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) authority to address a market failure to protect family, clergy and counsel who communicate with prisoners, inmates and detainees. The legislation also makes clear that the obligations of fairness in inmate communications apply to all individuals, including those living with a disability.    

“This bill is designed to strengthen families and reduce recidivism. Outrageously high prison phone call rates create an often insurmountable barrier between those in prison and their families,” said Portman. “While Ohio has done a good job of tackling this problem, this bill fills a void by helping to solve this problem nationwide. I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass this common-sense, bipartisan solution.”

“The vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released, and it’s only common-sense that—once they’ve repaid their debt to society—we should do whatever we can to ensure they do not return to a life of crime and instead have a chance to succeed,” said Duckworth. “Preserving contact with family members during incarceration can help make that a reality, but market failures unique to the prison telecommunications industry can make that more difficult. Fortunately, there is bipartisan agreement that the law should be clarified to enable the FCC to finally address those market failures. Our bipartisan legislation will help make sure that prison telecommunication rates are just and reasonable so family members can more easily 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.”

Video visitation and phone call services in prisons are often unreasonably expensive and far lower quality than the telecommunications services used by the general public. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai affirmed his commitment to addressing these issues during his nomination hearing and welcomed Congress providing the FCC with the authority to establish rules for intrastate prison calls. More information on the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is available here. This legislation is named after Martha Wright-Reed, who advocated for more affordable phone rates for more than 20 years. After Martha’s grandson became incarcerated and she discovered how expensive it was to keep in contact with him, she sued the Corrections Corporation of American for their exorbitantly high phone call rates. The FCC announced they were capping interstate prison phone call rates in 2013 after years of hard work by Martha Wright-Reed and other advocates.

The introduction of this legislation follows a federal court’s decision that the Communications Act authorizes FCC to regulate interstate prison calls, but does not clearly authorize the FCC to address intrastate prison telecommunications services. Without such policies in place, inmates and their families are forced to rely on a system that lacks adequate competition and often charges unreasonable rates. The Senators’ bipartisan Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act would correct this issue by ensuring consumers are protected against unfair telecommunications rates. Specifically, this legislation:  

  • Ensures consumers receive just and reasonable charges for all intra- and interstate inmate calling, drawing on the existing standard in Section 202 of the Communications Act.   
  • Ensures just and reasonable rates apply regardless of technology used, like video visitation services and other advanced communications services. This also ensures that the needs of inmates with disabilities is addressed.   
  • Permits the FCC to use its traditional procedures and authority to address unjust and unreasonable inmate calling rates.  

There is bipartisan agreement among current FCC commissioners that Congress should act to clarify the agency’s authority to do just that, as the Senators’ new legislation would require. At a U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee oversight hearing in August of 2018, Duckworth received a commitment from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Jessica Rosenworcel, Brendan Carr, and Chairman Ajit Pai to help address unjust and unreasonable inmate call rates.                                                                           

The following organizations support the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act: American Jail Association, Center for Media Justice, Common Cause, Fair and Just Prosecution, Free Press Action Fund, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD), Human Rights Defense Center, Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, INCOMPAS, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, NAACP, National Association of the Deaf, National CURE, National Hispanic Media Coalition, NCIC Inmate Communications, New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, Prison Policy Initiative, Public Knowledge, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI), United Church of Christ, OC Inc., Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center, Verizon, and Working Narratives.