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Thanks to a recently approved measure, the FCC can now crack down on predatory prison phone call firms

With the recent passage of legislation (which only needs the president’s signature to go into effect), the Federal Communications Commission will have the authority to directly regulate the notoriously exploitative prison calling industry. Companies may decide to shut down rather than face the pressure of providing a quality product at a fair price, allowing a new, more caring and progressive generation of service providers to enter the market.

The quality of inmate phone calls varies widely from one state and prison system to the next. Financial models involving kickbacks to the prisons and states incentivized income at all costs, leaving companies with a captive customer base and little incentive to innovate.

Prisoners are routinely subjected to exorbitant fees for basic services like phone calls and video calls (an upsell), and in some cases have even had their visitation privileges revoked, making paid calls their only option. Needless to say, people of colour and those with lower incomes bear a disproportionate share of this industry’s billion dollar cost.

This has been the case for a very long time, despite the efforts of former FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn to bring about a change. She told me in 2017 that inmate calling was “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.” This was shortly before she left the agency. For years, she laboured on this problem, but she gave much of the credit to Martha Wright-Reed, a grandmother who led the movement to reform the system and was its face until her death.

And today’s bill is named after Martha Wright-Reed. The bill is straightforward, giving the FCC authority “to ensure just and reasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in correctional and detention facilities.” The Communications Act of1934, which (among other things) created the FCC and is regularly updated for this purpose, is amended in a few key ways to achieve this. (After the celebrations surrounding the spending bill, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit, and the holiday address subside, President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.)

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that the agency “has for years moved aggressively to address this terrible problem,” but that it has been constrained in its ability to address rates for calls made within a state’s borders. The FCC will be given the authority to close this glaring, painful, and detrimental loophole in our phones rate rules for the incarcerated today thanks to the leadership of Senators Duckworth and Portman and their bipartisan coalition. (She thanked both Wright-Reed and Clyburn, by the way.)

Free Press has compiled several other comments from stakeholders; all of them express support for the legislation and its goals of reducing “carceral profiteering” and improving conditions for inmates, rather than continuing to view them as a commodity.

It’s great that prices will drop once the FCC finally passes a rule on the matter, but the impact will likely go beyond that.