Prison and Jail Phone Justice Advocates Welcome FCC’s Proposed Changes to Rate Caps, Fees, and Clarification of Rights for People with Disabilities, Urge Speedy Additional Action
The announcement represents an important step forward, securing greater communications access for incarcerated people, but more is still needed.
WASHINGTON (May 4, 2021) — Today, civil rights leaders and advocacy organizations working across various issues in criminal legal and prison reform came together to offer their reactions to the Federal Communications Commission’s draft order on prison communications.
The new rules proposed by the FCC, which were released as a draft order on Thursday, April 29, will help to ease the financial burdens and barriers incarcerated people and their loved ones face when trying to connect by reducing interstate rate caps, introducing international rate caps, limiting ancillary fees, and establishing parity between debit and collect calling. It will also ensure that incarcerating institutions and prison phone corporations no longer thwart their duties to incarcerated disabled people by clarifying that these entities must provide modern telecommunication services and technology without additional cost as required by law.
This is an important step, but the FCC must do more. In particular, advocates called out the inclusion of kickback payments to incarcerating institutions in the rate caps and the exclusion of jails that hold fewer than 1,000 people and which have some of the nation’s highest rates. The FCC acknowledged that more work needs to be done to ensure incarcerated people and their loved ones are protected from exploitation.
Cheryl A. Leanza, Policy Advisor for the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry OC Inc. said, “Acting Chair Rosenworcel today proposed an important step forward on the excruciatingly long road toward full and just communications rights and charges for incarcerated people and their loved ones as well as the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities. This is an important step at a critical time. At the same time, I wish the agency could have gone further. The FCC must reconsider its decision to include kickback payments between providers and facilities in the regulated rates and must quickly address the still-elevated rates that apply to incarcerated people in jails with populations under 1,000. I am heartened that the current rates and policies are interim policies and that FCC will adopt a new mandatory data collection and that the further notice asks additional questions to develop a more robust basis to quickly move ahead on these matters.”
Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of Worth Rises said, “We are grateful to Acting Chair Rosenworcel and the Commission for moving to provide families with the incarcerated loved ones relief by reducing interstate rate caps. Of course, we’re disappointed, as we know the Commission is, that the breadth of the relief proposed is so narrow — it’s too little and for too few. The limitations on the FCC imposed by precedent legal decisions continue to stymie meaningful industry regulation, and we hope to see the FCC exercise courage in pushing back. We are encouraged by the request for comments about whether any security and surveillance should be factored into rate caps. Prisons and jails cannot continue to be allowed to shift their operational costs onto incarcerated people and their families through communication, it’s breaking up families and pillaging communities. Thankfully, these are interim steps, and we look forward to working with the FCC to bring about more robust relief in the future.”
Scott Roberts, Senior Director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns at Color of Change said, “For too long, the prison telecommunications industry has exploited incarcerated individuals and their loved ones by charging exorbitant fees for prison phone calls. These families, who are disproportionately Black and low-income have been forced to make a painful decision between hearing the voices of their loved ones and facing deep economic hardship — even during the pandemic. The FCC’s proposed rule is only an initial step to ease financial barriers to keep Black families connected. But there is still more to be done. The FCC must rein in corporate greed by the prison telecommunication companies, end their predatory practices, and make prison phone calls completely free of charge.”
Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said: “Excessive telephone fees are an unreasonable burden on the loved ones of incarcerated persons. Private phone companies and jailors exploit people who are incarcerated by creating an exclusive route of communication, placing an unreasonable price on calls and forcing prisoners and their families to pay outrageous fees or lose contact. This is a step in the right direction.”
Leo Fitzpatrick, Policy Counsel at Free Press, said: “Free Press welcomes the FCC’s proposed rules and applauds the efforts of Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel, the new Commission, and its staff on this crucial communications justice issue. The draft order would lower the interim interstate rate caps, set a cap on international calling rates for the first time, and reaffirm obligations that correctional authorities and companies have to ensure accessible communications services for incarcerated disabled people. We also look forward to other proposed actions, like the FCC’s data collection on costs at facilities of all sizes, in the realization that more is needed to expose the grossly inflated prices and deeply exploitative practices of the for-profit, prison industrial complex. Free Press looks forward to a future that fulfills the advocacy of incarcerated people and their families seeking more just, reasonable, and affordable phone rates.”
Rebekah P. Goodheart, Counsel to The Wright Petitioners, said, “Nearly twenty years ago, Martha Wright petitioned the FCC to reduce the cost of phone calls so she could stay in touch with her grandson. The Wright Petitioners applaud the leadership of Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel in taking the next step to provide much-needed relief from unreasonable rates and fees. Studies show that keeping in contact while incarcerated reduces recidivism. We look forward to further reforms, including a new mandatory data collection, to bring additional relief to incarcerated persons and their friends and families.”
Andrew Schwartzman, Senior Counsel at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society said, “These rules will address many, but not all, of the abuses that incarcerated people and their families encounter in trying to maintain ties with each other. Among other things, the new rules will end most of the abusive ‘ancillary fees’ that providers have thus far continued to impose.”
The following groups joined together to issue this statement: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Color of Change, CURE, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, FWD.us, Free Press, HEARD, National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), Public Knowledge, United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry, Voqal, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Working Narratives, Worth Rises, and The Wright Petitioners.