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Biden signs bill to ease costs for prisoner calls to family

New law will help ensure that phone rates are “reasonable” for families trying to stay in touch with an incarcerated loved one


The legislation makes good a campaign trail promise by President Biden, who also recently signed into law a bill requiring the federal Bureau of Prisons to fix broken surveillance cameras.

Patrick Semansky

By Colleen Long
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law a bill aimed at easing the cost for prisoners to call family and friends.

The legislation clarifies that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate and international communications through cable, radio, television, satellite and wire, can set limits for fees on audio and video calls inside corrections facilities.

Phone calls from prisons and jails are a lifeline for those incarcerated, but the cost varies widely and can be a financial drain on families already struggling to make ends meet with an adult behind bars. Right now, Kentucky has the highest cost for a 15-minute call, at $5.70, and $9.99 for a cellphone call, while New Hampshire charges only 20 cents for the same amount of time.

There are more than 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, and tens of thousands more are incarcerated in jails nationwide awaiting trials or sentencings.

The COVID-19 pandemic froze prison visits, forcing inmates to rely heavily on phone calls, and the health crisis spotlighted the disparities in state and federal phone charges. Studies by prison reform advocates and academics have shown that visitation and phone calls with loved ones decrease the likelihood that a person will commit a crime again.

The legislation makes good a campaign trail promise by Biden, who also recently signed into law a bill requiring the federal Bureau of Prisons to overhaul outdated security systems and fix broken surveillance cameras. Earlier last year he signed an executive order meant to improve accountability in policing.

“Meaningful communication and connection with loved ones helps promote rehabilitation, and it also reduces recidivism, which makes our communities safer,” said Vanessa Chen, Special Assistant to the President for Criminal Justice and Guns Policy.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and just retired-Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. It was named in honor of Martha Wright-Reed, a retired nurse who tried for more than two decades to get more affordable rates because she could not afford to call her incarcerated grandson at the cost of more than $100 per month.

“No family member should ever have to choose between staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one and paying the bills,” Duckworth said in a statement, adding that the new law will help ensure that phone rates are “reasonable.”

The FCC must still go through the rule-making process before the changes can be officially made. In 2013, FCC caped rates at 25 cents per minute, which meant a 15-minute call cost $3.75; before that it was roughly $17 on average, about 10 times more than the average per-minute rate. Prison telecommunication companies challenged the decision in court, claiming the FCC didn’t have the right to regulate the calls.

In 2015, then-FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn told lawmakers she supported measures to cap the costs. “Incarceration is a family matter, an economic matter, a societal matter. The greatest impact of an inmate’s sentence is often on the loved ones who are left behind,” she said.

In 2017, under President Donald Trump, the FCC abandoned the fight to lower the cost for prison phone calls. A federal appeals court eventually ruled the FCC didn’t have the authority to cap the rates.

The legislation signed by Biden gives the federal agency the authority that the appellate court ruled it lacked, the White House said.