Since You Asked: What’s next for prison and jail phone justice now that the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is law?

We explain what the new law accomplishes, how the FCC can — and should — enforce it, and why the fight for phone justice is not over.

by Wanda Bertram, January 19, 2023

Earlier this month, President Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022, a bill that we and other advocates for prison phone justice have been supporting for years. Below, we explain what the new law accomplishes and what comes next. While the fight for phone justice is far from over, the bill empowers the Federal Communications Commission to take major steps to bring down communication costs for incarcerated people and their families — and the FCC has indicated that it plans to do so soon.

 

What does the new law do?

The Martha Wright-Reed Act accomplishes two main things: It clarifies the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state calls placed from correctional facilities, as well as clarifying the agency’s authority to regulate video calls.

For context: The FCC has successfully imposed caps on rates for out-of-state calls from prisons and jails, but not in-state calls. After the agency created regulations in 2015 that lowered the cost of both in-state and out-of-state calls, telecom corporations sued the regulator, and a federal court ultimately ruled that the FCC exceeded its legal authority in capping in-state calls. Since then, the FCC has made no attempt to cap in-state phone rates.

Most incarcerated people today who call loved ones in the same state are likely charged rates similar to out-of-state rates (or just charged the out-of-state rate), as we explain in our recent report State of Phone Justice 2022. But some are charged much higher rates. The Martha Wright-Reed Act will allow the FCC to bring relief to this minority of people still paying higher in-state rates, and protect all people in jail and their families from future attempts by the telecom industry to block regulation.

The Act also clarifies the FCC’s jurisdiction over video calling costs. We and others have long argued to the FCC — over a flood of misinformation from prison telecom companies — that the agency has the authority to regulate the exorbitant cost of video calls behind bars. But the agency has not taken action so far.

Video calls are especially important to regulate, because the companies rapidly pivoted to this technology when the FCC began to restrict what could be charged for phone calls. As a result, video calling rates are much higher than phone rates today. In a four-state survey for State of Phone Justice 2022, we found that families of people in prisons and jails are paying as much as $8 to make a 20-minute video call, for a much lower-quality version of the technology that most people today are able to use for free. Even worse, jails and companies often use video technology as a pretext for eliminating or curtailing in-person family visits, as we exposed in our 2015 report Screening Out Family Time. The new law empowers the FCC to cap the amount that companies can charge for video calls, which will make these harmful contracts less attractive to jails.

 

When will the law be implemented, and how?

While we don’t know exactly when the FCC will take action to implement the Martha Wright-Reed Act, the law requires the FCC to promulgate regulations “not earlier than 18 months and not later than 24 months after the date of enactment of this Act” — in other words, sometime in the latter half of 2024. In a press release, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel committed to “expeditiously move new rules forward” in light of the bill’s passage.

The FCC already has all the data it needs to begin setting “just and reasonable rates” as soon as the law allows. In 2021, the agency collected rate data from every phone company serving prisons and jails. That data is still current enough for the FCC to use it to set new rate caps that apply to in-state as well as out-of-state calls. (We offer a few more recommendations to the FCC in State of Phone Justice 2022.) Additionally, while data about video calling rates is spotty and hard to come by, there is still plenty of information already in the record that the FCC can use to put initial price caps in place. In fact, there is precedent for doing so: When the agency took steps to rein in the cost of phone calls in 2015, it relied on similarly incomplete data to set initial rates and then revised those rates as it gathered more information. The agency should replicate that successful process now to provide the quickest relief possible to incarcerated people and their families. As the agency gathers more data, it can and should take more fine-tuned action to rein in exorbitant video calling rates.

 

Is the fight for phone justice over?

In a word: No. The cost of phone and video calls in almost all jails and many state prisons is still way too high, and even when the FCC implements the new law, there is no guarantee that the agency will set caps as low as it should.

One piece of important good news: The phone rate caps that the FCC has set so far (and will set going forward) don’t preempt states that want to pass laws setting even tighter caps. Illinois, for example, capped phone rates from prisons at 7¢ per minute for prisons, and New Jersey capped rates from prisons and jails at 11¢ per minute.
Rather than wait on FCC action, state legislatures should act now to bring down phone and video calling rates to a few cents a minute, or follow the example of California and Connecticut by just making calls free.

In the meantime, even as voice and video calling regulations become stronger, the corporations that dominate the industry are expanding telecom exploitation. Companies are working hard to evade regulation by growing the number of “services” they offer to prisons and jails. People desperate to stay in touch with their incarcerated parents, kids, and other loved ones as much as possible are being squeezed by companies for electronic messaging as well as phone calls and video, and stricter policies around mail and in-person visits are pushing them towards these more convenient, but also more expensive, options. State legislators and regulators should act to make sure that telecom companies are not able to simply replace one exploitative service with another.

 

What’s next?

The Martha Wright-Reed Act is an important step forward in the fight for prison and jail phone justice, but it doesn’t guarantee effective action at the FCC; nor does it spell the end of this movement. Prisons and jails are still charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, while implementing many other “services” that fleece poor families desperate to stay in touch.

The FCC must act swiftly and set bold caps on both phone and video calls, to ensure that families never again pay hundreds of dollars a month to stay connected to a single loved one. State and municipal governments, meanwhile, should not rest on their laurels. If anything, policymakers, regulators and legislators should recommit themselves to the fight against these exploitative companies. After all, at a time when the price of a phone call outside the walls of a prison or jail is approaching zero, you can’t help but ask yourself, “why are incarcerated people and their families being charged for calls at all?”

For more information on the current state of the prison and jail telecom industry, see our recent report State of Phone Justice 2022: The problem, the progress, and what’s next.

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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