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Will Other States Join CA, CT, In Making Prison Phone Calls Free?

Many incarcerated people have found themselves deciding to pay for an expensive call to home and landing themselves in debt, or having to wonder how their loved ones are doing. This is the reality for one in three families of incarcerated people in the U.S., thanks to the high costs of phone calls from prison. Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law making all phone calls from state prisons free. Now it’s time for other states, and Congress, to act, says the Washington Post in an editorial. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average charge for a 15-minute call is $5.74, but it can reach as high as $24.82. Since most incarcerated people are disproportionately low-income, families often have to choose between keeping in contact and paying for other needs. This represents a clear market failure. The prison phone industry is a near-duopoly: Two companies control between 74 and 83 percent of the market. Most facilities select companies based on kickbacks rather than service, which has allowed corporations to charge exorbitant rates without consequence. The industry earns more than $1.4 billion annually, mostly profiting off low-income, incarcerated people.

Studies have shown that consistent family phone calls reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation after release. In the long run, lowering phone costs could save taxpayers money and improve public safety. Last year, Connecticut’s governor became the first to sign legislation making prison phone calls free/ New York City and San Francisco have taken similar steps, while several other states have reduced their rates through regulation. With the help of advocates and volunteers, California is the largest jurisdiction to act. Millions of Americans in other areas, are still struggling to afford calls. More states should enact legislation to cover costs or regulations to establish rate caps, the newspaper says, and there is also change due at the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission can regulate fees for interstate calls. I 2017, a court blocked it from setting restrictions on intrastate fees, which make up the vast majority of prison phone costs. A policy that could make a difference nationally is the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, named after a woman who had to choose between paying for her medication and calling her incarcerated grandson. The bill would authorize the FCC to set “just and reasonable” rates for both interstate and intrastate calls, as well as video calls.

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