Biden signs a bill to fight expensive prison phone call costs
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Making phone calls from prison can be expensive. Now, that goes both for prisoners themselves and their loved ones on the outside. Typically, jails and prisons enter contracts with just one telecoms company, so whatever price they agree incarcerated people and their families have to pay, or they can't talk. Well, a bill has just passed Congress that aims to curb the cost of calls. It is headed to President Biden's desk for his signature. And NPR's Juliana Kim is on the story. Hey there, Juliana.
JULIANA KIM, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: Hi. So these contracts that prisons sign with one telecoms provider - give me a little bit more information on how they work and what kind of prices we are talking.
KIM: So like you said, prisons and jails typically develop an exclusive contract with one telecom company. And that's part of the problem. Because there's no competition, incarcerated people and their families have no choice but to be stuck with paying whatever prices that company sets. Some prisons also charge site commissions, which activists call kickbacks to county sheriffs or state corrections departments. And local officials have defended them, arguing it's used to fund staff to monitor inmate calls for public safety reasons. But calls from prisons can cost on average $5 for a 30-minute phone call in the U.S.
KELLY: Five dollars for half an hour, which can add up. I can see that. There's been a legal fight over this for a while. The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, has been trying to intervene. Is that right?
KIM: The FCC has been fighting to cut costs for a long time. Almost a decade ago, the agency began curbing phone rates between states, essentially long-distance calls. Then a few years later, they tried to do the same for phone calls made locally or within states. But the companies that provide prison phone service were not OK with that. They eventually sued and won, and the FCC lost their authority to set prices within state borders. And that was a major blow for the FCC and for people in prison and their loved ones because so many of them are making those calls locally. And that's what this bill is trying to readdress.
KELLY: So it sounds like this bill is a big win for the FCC. Tell me more about what exactly it would do. How would it help curb prices on these calls within states?
KIM: Yeah. So the answer, funny enough, is in its name. The first part of the bill's name is Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act.
KIM: Long, I know, but named after a retired nurse who became a prison reform advocate on this very issue. The second part refers to what the bill hopes to do, which is giving the FCC more authority to regulate prison phone calls and ensure, quote, "just and reasonable charges." And that's not just an abstract idea, but just and reasonable is actually a legal term that the FCC has been relying on since 1934. Another way to interpret it is that the FCC is going to try to make those rates more fair and nondiscriminatory so that whether a person is incarcerated or not, they're charged about the same to make a basic phone call.
KELLY: So let's talk about the impact on the people who will be affected by this. Cheaper calls - aside from that, what are the benefits to reforming these phone policies?
KIM: There's an emotional benefit, which goes a long way. Research shows that when people in prison and their loved ones maintain regular contact, it tends to reduce their likelihood of being reincarcerated. The Vera Institute of Justice also found that keeping in touch has a strong correlation with lower drug use, greater likelihood of finding jobs and fewer run-ins with the law.
KELLY: What about timing? How soon could these changes go into effect?
KIM: The legislation just got on to Biden's desk, and he hasn't signed off on it yet. And there's a lot to get done. But the FCC has made a target to make changes within two years of the bill becoming law.
KELLY: Within two years. All right. We shall watch and wait. NPR's Juliana Kim. Thank you.
KIM: Thank you.
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