Congress Urged To Tackle Prison Call Rates In COVID-19 Bill

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (August 11, 2020, 3:07 PM EDT) -- Public advocates on Tuesday called for Congress to pass legislation as part of the next coronavirus relief package that would significantly lower the in-state phone call rates for people who are incarcerated.

The advocacy groups, including MediaJustice, Color of Change and Worth Rises, presented Illinois Democrats Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Bobby Rush with nearly 80,000 signatures from concerned citizens who said they support the initiative.

"This industry and the players in it charge families as much as $25 for a simple one-minute phone call," said Bianca Tylek, executive director of prisoner advocacy group Worth Rises, noting the additional complications of the coronavirus pandemic. "At regular times, that is a difficult burden to bear, but at times like this, it's impossible."

The Federal Communications Commission voted last week on a plan that would slash the maximum out-of-state call rates that prisoners pay, but the advocates noted during a virtual press conference that this reform only addresses about 20% of calls made in the prison system.

According to Cheryl Leanza, a media attorney working with the groups, Congress must act to give the FCC authority over in-state as well as out-of-state rates — something that only states have jurisdiction over right now. Although cities such as New York — and most recently, San Francisco — have elected to make local calls free, "the vast majority of states have not taken sufficient action," she said.

To address this disparity, the petition calls for Congress to include language giving the FCC this authority in both the House and Senate version of the latest coronavirus relief package.

Rush already succeeded in folding a piece of legislation into the House's Heroes Act that would cap both in- and out-of-state rates between 4 and 5 cents per minute and ban site commissions — arrangements in which service providers give a portion of their profits back to the prison in exchange for a contract to do business there.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., led a similar yet narrower bipartisan bill last year that would give the FCC jurisdiction over intrastate rates. However, discussions over the Senate's answer to the Heroes Act have stalled.

"We are calling on members of the Senate not just to pass this legislation but to remove the barriers that keep families from connecting, to stop the economic exploitation that punishes the families of incarcerated people," said Scott Roberts, a campaign director at Color of Change. "We have to end the perverse incentives that make it profitable to lock people up."

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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