Legislation aims to block robbery of exorbitant prison phone charges

American households collectively pay $1 billion to call family members in jail or prison every year, and more than a third of families go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits to incarcerated loved ones.

U.S. Representative Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) has longfought to lower prison phone rates and reintroduced his Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act in April.

“Several studies, going as far back as the 1970s, have shown that prisoners who are able to maintain close contact with loved ones experience better post-release outcomes and have lower recidivism rates,” said Rush, who co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. “This is an important aspect of rehabilitation not only for those that are incarcerated and their loved ones, but also for the communities where they reside.”

In questioning of witness Cheryl Leanza, a policy advisor at the United Church of Christ Office of Communications, Rush asked: “Can you discuss how the current prison phone model discourages this extremely close contact relationship?”

Leanza replied, “There is no more effective — and more cost-effective way — to improve outcomes than to give people who are incarcerated close ties to the community outside, so that when they are finished with their term, they can find a job, find a place to live, their family relationships with their children [and] spouses will continue to be strong and vibrant, and they will be able to reenter society fully and successfully.”

“So, it is a part of safe communities to allow people to successfully reintegrate into society if they can keep those communications vibrant while they are inside,” said Leanza.

Rush’s legislation would ban the commissions that prisons and other confinement facilities receive from communications providers, which are the primary cause of exorbitant prison phone rates.

It would also cap intrastate and interstate phone services at four cents per minute for debit prepaid calling and five cents per minute for collect calls.

Rush’s legislation is named for Martha Wright-Reed, a Washington, D.C. resident who filed a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2000, charging that exorbitant prison phone charges forced her to choose between paying for her medication and communicating with her incarcerated grandson.

She continued her fight for phone justice until her death in 2015.

The Federal Communications Commission passed a sweeping reform on inmate calling costs in 2019, capping the rates for the first time on local, in-state and long-distance calls.

With the cost of a call sometimes ballooning to $14 per minute once inside prison walls, the FCC for the first time capped rates for local and in-state long-distance inmate calling, and cut its existing cap on interstate long-distance calls by up to 50 percent, but there are still strong reasons that imprisoned people and their families should be protected from this kind of highway robbery.

More than five million children in the United States have experienced the incarceration of a parent.

Today, 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars. For these kids, losing a parent to incarceration can be as traumatic as losing a parent to death or divorce.

Prisoners are often housed hundreds of miles from their families, making phone the only way to connect on a routine basis. Excessively high calling rates allow price-gouging phone companies to profiteer off this basic human need.

Dominque Jones-Johnson started checking in more regularly with her father when the coronavirus pandemic broke out – but when a 15-minute phone call costs $3.15, the expense of the calls strained her budget to the breaking point.

By May, these local calls – which would have been free for most people living in the state – had cost the family nearly $400.

Jones-Johnson, who founded the charity Daughters Beyond Incarceration, said in a phone interview that “the money stressed me out, but not talking to him stresses me out more”.

Rush was first elected to Congress in 1992 as a member of the Democratic Party.

He is the only person to have defeated former President of the United States Barack Obama in an election, which he did in the 2000 Democratic primary for Illinois’s 1st congressional district.

After Rush ran for Mayor of Chicago against Richard M. Daley in 1999 and lost, Obama—an Illinois state senator at that time—entered the race six months before the primary, stating that the incumbent represented “a politics that is rooted in the past, a reactive politics that isn’t good at coming up with concrete solutions.”

Obama promised to build consensus and lead coalitions involving people outside of the black community to reduce crime, improve health care coverage, promote economic development and expand educational opportunities, but Rush defeated him 61 percent to 30 percent, with two other candidates combining for the remaining nine percent.

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