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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Cliona Boyle

House Rep. Equates Unregulated Prison Call System to the ‘Wild, Wild West’

Astronomical phone bills and ‘egregious’ practices inside the carceral system separate people inside prisons and jails from connecting with their loved ones, a communication expert testified in front of Congress.


By: Caroline Cliona Boyle


Families are racking up astronomical phone bills to maintain contact with adjudicated and incarcerated members of the community, a communication policy advocate testified at a House hearing today.


The ‘egregious’ practices of the prison telecommunication industry strike a chord with Cheyrl A. Leanza, Communications Policy Advisor for the United Church of Christ. At a Congressional hearing today, Leanza said families of incarcerated individuals pay an average of $5.74 a call to hear the voices of their spouses, parents, children, and more, behind bars.


Currently, the Federal government does not regulate phone calls to prison facilities. “The rates are atrocious,” said Leanza. The necessity to strengthen communications policy to meet the needs of vulnerable Americans is urgent, she said.


“The need is urgent, the rates are atrocious,” Leanza said.


Out of the 12 bills discussed during the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, proposed by Rep. Bobby Rush D-IL, will eliminate the legislative discrepancy that has enabled call rates to prisons to remain unregulated.


Leanza testified that even the basic costs of phone contact add up. In particular instances, the Federal Communication Commission recorded instances of 15-minute phone calls to local carceral facilities costing individuals upwards of $24.80.


“Could you maintain your marriage on a few 15-minute conversations a week?” said Leanza. “I don’t think so and neither can these families.”


Prison telecommunication in the United States is a $1.2 billion industry owned primarily by two stakeholders - Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies. These companies benefitted from a 2017 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in Washington that prevented the FCC from capping intra-state prison calls at a maximum of $14.


While prison telecommunication companies advocate for a deregulated market, “competition does not solve this problem,” Leanza said. “It is not a marketplace that functions.”


The negotiation of jail phone contracts with telecommunication companies almost always works to the detriment of those on the outside who rack up the bills - family members, counsel, and clergymen, she said.


Rep. Jerry McNerney D-Calif. expressed concern that aggregate costs of prison calls with no cap are so severe that the family members of incarcerated and adjudicated individuals are going into debt.


Studies have shown an established link between paying the “outrageous and unjustified rates” of prison phone bills and debt. Paying off prison phone bills led 34% of families with loved ones behind bars into debt, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found.


On top of this, the carceral system disproportionately affects low-income families; the burden of accumulating prison phone costs is an additional financial battle that put these families at further risk of going into debt, said Leanza.


Rep. Tony Cardenas D-Calif. equated the entire prison telecommunication industry to the “wild, wild west.” Cardenas called for the immediate implementation of the Phone Justice Act to safeguard “the standard of decency for a child to speak to their parent.”


Studies have shown connection between family and friends during incarceration produce better outcomes for people once they are released. A 2011 Pew Center for the States report concluded the maintenance of contact between family members and friends with those behind bars resulted in lower rates of recidivism.


The implementation of the Phone Justice Act will grant families fair access to speak with their loved ones to provide the adequate connection and emotional support that incarcerated and adjudicated individuals need, said Leanza.


“There is no more effective way to improve outcomes than to give people who are incarcerated ties to the community outside.”

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