Legislation introduced and championed by U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to strengthen the nation’s criminal justice system was signed into law on Jan. 5, 2023, by President Biden. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, as amended, will help families keep in touch with their incarcerated family members, which studies have shown can help reduce recidivism rates and thereby save taxpayer dollars. Two weeks ago, the legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives by voice vote after passing the Senate the day before by unanimous consent.
“No family member should ever have to choose between staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one and paying the bills,” said Duckworth. “I’m proud President Biden signed this legislation into law, and that we’re entering 2023 by helping ensure that phone rates in correctional facilities are reasonable so family members can afford to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones. Just phone calls can improve the chances that rehabilitated offenders will be able to become productive members of society upon their release.”
The version of the bill that the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation (CST) Committee favorably reported, and has now been signed into law, was supported by the National Sheriffs’ Association and a coalition of organizations, clarifies that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is authorized to regulate intrastate phone rates and charges in correctional facilities to ensure they are just and reasonable, and amends the definition of advanced communications services to make sure the updated statute is technology-neutral.
There is bipartisan consensus that intrastate rates and charges in correctional facilities are unjust and unreasonable. FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel described the rates that families of incarcerated people are forced to pay as “unconscionable” and noted that the price for individual calls in correctional facilities “…can be as much as many of us pay for unlimited monthly plans.” In testifying before CST, Commissioner Rosenworcel also stated in response to a question from Senator Duckworth, “We do have issues associated with intrastate rates – we need your legislation to help [FCC] on that.”
FCC Chair Rosenworcel’s predecessor, former FCC Chair Ajit Pai, also criticized the status quo when leading the FCC, noting that intrastate providers “…are charging egregiously high intrastate rates across the country,” and observing that incarcerated people and their families are “…particularly vulnerable to these exorbitant intrastate rates.” Similar to current FCC Chair Rosenworcel, former FCC Chair Pai also testified to CST that he would welcome the legal authority to regulate intrastate rates and charges in correctional facilities to ensure they are just and reasonable.
This bipartisan legislation is named after Martha Wright-Reed, who advocated for more affordable phone rates for more than 20 years. After Martha’s grandson became incarcerated and she discovered how expensive it was to keep in contact with him, she sued the Corrections Corporation of American for their exorbitantly high phone call rates. The FCC first announced it would cap interstate prison phone call rates in 2013 after years of hard work by Martha Wright-Reed and other advocates. More information on the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is available here.
Organizations from across the political spectrum supported the amended version of the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act that CST favorably reported, including: The National Sheriffs’ Association, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Color Of Change, Common Cause, Communications Workers of America, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Free Press Action, International CURE, Japanese American Citizens League, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Consumer Law Center, on behalf of its low-income clients, National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), New America’s Open Technology Institute Prison Policy Initiative, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, Public Knowledge, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI), United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry, Voqal, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC) and Worth Rises.