For decades, prison phone companies have seen the millions of people in jail in this country and their families as a captive market, desperate to talk on the phone, lacking the means to advocate for themselves, and—crucially—stuck in facilities that could also use an infusion of cash. The profits have come easy. In Dauphin County (Harrisburg), Pa., for instance, a recent investigation revealed that the jail’s phone provider made enough money in three years to kick back a whopping $3.4 million to the jail itself.
Days before that investigation was published, President Joe Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, a bill that empowers the Federal Communications Commission to rein in the rates that companies charge incarcerated people and their families to stay in contact. The hard-won law will mean a fairer market for phone and video calling services in jails and prisons. It requires the FCC to promulgate regulations, sometime in the latter half of 2024, ensuring that the costs these individuals and their families pay for phone and video calls are “just and reasonable.”
But the fight to spare families from exploitation isn’t done yet.
For one thing, the FCC might not regulate these costs to the extent that it can or should. The agency has a record of making decisions about prison exploitation issues that effectively favor companies over consumers. In regulating other prison phone issues, the FCC has seen fit to ask companies for their business data via the honor system, and made decisions with this data rather than scrutinizing the economics of delivering services to prisons.
The FCC has always had the power to regulate some of the calls people make from prisons and jails—those which are designated “out of state” calls. Even with that power, the regulator has capped per-minute rates for those calls at 21 cents per minute, a much higher price than necessary. To give some sense of how burdensome those rates are for families, 21 cents per minute is how much the Dauphin County Prison—the Harrisburg jail mentioned above—charges for phone calls. One mother in Dauphin County told Pennlive.com that she has forked over $400 to $500 a month to talk to her incarcerated son. Meanwhile, a handful of counties across the country have negotiated phone rates with their providers as low as one or two cents per minute—proving the possibility of much lower rates.
Furthermore, the largest prison telecom companies—Securus and GTL—are rapidly expanding their exploitative practices beyond phone and video calls to technologies that the FCC cannot (yet) regulate. Families eager to stay in touch are now offered electronic messaging and tablet computers; on the tablets, incarcerated people can also purchase entertainment, such as (in West Virginia) reading e-books for five cents per minute. As if that weren’t bad enough, the companies are pushing families toward expensive communications options by encouraging facilities to prohibit physical mail and in-person visits, passing these off as measures against drug contraband.
These newer products are already profoundly lucrative for the companies. Data from the jail in Albany County, N.Y., suggests that video calling, electronic messaging, and entertainment services account for more than three-quarters of the money Securus takes home from its contract in Albany. While one of these services—video calling—can now be regulated thanks to the Martha Wright-Reed Act, the others do not fall under the Act’s purview, meaning there is much work to do.
Seven miles down the road from the Dauphin County Prison stands SCI Camp Hill Range, a Pennsylvania state prison where phone calls cost six cents per minute. The mother of a son at Camp Hill Range pays a fraction of what she would pay if her son were locked up in Dauphin County. The prices of phone calls differ across correctional facilities because they are completely arbitrary, set by the whims of companies and governments looking to make easy money off people in terrible situations.
By law, states can set much tighter caps on phone rates than the FCC does and the companies must obey whichever applicable cap is lower. So far, three states—Illinois, New Jersey, and California—have shown the potential of this action. Illinois capped phone rates from its prisons at seven cents per minute; New Jersey set caps at 11 cents, while prohibiting jails and prisons from taking kickbacks from the companies. California capped rates at seven cents for both prisons and jails, and last year, it went even further: It made calls from prisons free, funded by a small portion of the state budget.
Meanwhile, in 2020, Connecticut not only made phone calls from correctional facilities free—it passed a law ensuring that all other prison and jail communications services must be free as well. With this law, Connecticut ensured that its reforms would not be undermined and that people in prison, like everyone else who uses a phone, would receive some consumer protection.
The Martha Wright-Reed Act is a huge victory for advocates who have spent decades fighting the exploitation of incarcerated people and their families. But their fight is not over. Until the FCC takes action with its newfound authority, families will continue to pay absurd rates to talk to their loved ones behind bars. The prices of services like electronic messaging and tablets will remain untouched, set unilaterally by an industry notorious for its misconduct. Meanwhile, a handful of states have taken the baton and are going further to rein in this corporate greed than the feds have—and maybe ever will. When will more states follow their lead?