Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives passed, with a 208 to 199 vote, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes more funding to address the immediate needs of families with low income. Included in the 1,815-page omnibus stimulus bill is the COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, which would reinstate the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) authority to regulate all prison and jail phone call rates, reversing a major 2017 D.C. Court of Appeals ruling.
The Act would provide families with incarcerated loved ones—often Black and Brown families and families with low income—desperately-needed relief as they face an indefinite economic crisis. The stimulus package seeks to support these very families, many of whom are currently on the frontlines in essential jobs, facing layoffs, evictions, and hunger. Connecting with loved ones behind bars has never been more important as prisons and jails become the local epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak across the country and visits are suspended.
Responsive to decades of pressure by prison phone justice advocates led in part by the provision’s namesake Ms. Martha Wright-Reed, the COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act would authorize and direct the FCC to regulate both interstate and intrastate prison and jail calls again. In the interim, it would set rate caps at $0.04 per minute for prepaid calls and $0.05 per minute for collect calls, making the max charge for a 15-minute call $0.75 as compared to the current national average of $5.76 in jails and $1.42 in prisons (prepaid). The Act would also bar state and local government agencies from collecting commissions off phone calls. As more and more families combat increasing economic insecurity, this provision would dramatically increase the capacity of families to communicate with incarcerated loved ones.
“This is the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history, and it is needed now more than ever,” said Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of Worth Rises. “Right now, in the middle of an economic crisis, predatory prison telecom corporations are still charging families as much as $25 for a 15-minute call with an incarcerated loved one. The exorbitant cost of these calls has long pushed families—disproportionately Black and Brown due to racist policies and policing—into debt, but times are even harder due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We applaud the House for thinking about these families and including prison phone justice in its stimulus package, and we urge the Senate to hold this line against the exploitation of people behind bars and the families who love them.”
“The passing of the Heroes Act through the House is a significant step in the right direction for families and their incarcerated loved ones. For decades, Black and brown families living on low incomes have for too long borne the brunt of the exorbitant cost of phone calls as the sole lifeline to remain connected to their loved ones who are incarcerated. This exploitation by prison phone companies, coupled with the disproportionate health and economic impacts the pandemic has had on Black and brown families, has made the fight for phone justice that much more high stakes. We applaud the House for recognizing and acting upon this urgency and we demand the Senate take similar swift action to ensure our communities remain in contact with one another throughout this crisis and beyond,” said Myaisha Hayes, Campaign Director at MediaJustice.
“The Martha Wright Act provisions championed by Representative Rush, Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Pallone recognize that the right of all people in the U.S. to connect with each other during the novel coronavirus pandemic is not only a matter of mental health and economic survival, it is a matter of life and death. Communication is particularly important for incarcerated people. Daughters, fathers, cousins, grandmothers are anxious to reach out to get and give support. If stories from inside prisons are not told, horrible life-threatening conditions are more likely to persist. If families can reach their incarcerated loved ones at fair rates, they can monitor their health and welfare and ensure they receive access to essential care given the horrific spread of COVID-19 among people in jail, prison or detention. We can save lives,” said Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor at UCC OC, Inc.
“The need for communication between incarcerated people and their families is greater than ever during this crisis, with in-person visits suspended and family members facing grave threats to their health. But even absent the widespread economic hardship caused by the crisis, the cost of prison calls can be prohibitively expensive to families,” said Ariel Nelson, attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “The HEROES Act takes a critical step towards helping families stay connected by immediately capping the cost of calls and prohibiting exploitative practices that take advantage of families’ basic need to connect to generate revenue."
“Today, the House passed desperately-needed connectivity assistance for millions struggling under the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact,” said Leo Fitzpatrick, Policy Counsel at Free Press Action. “We welcome the inclusion of this provision within the larger package as it ensures that everyone in our society can get and stay connected in this current crisis and recognizes what we have known all along: exploitative profiteering off incarcerated people and their families as they struggle to stay connected is unjustified and cruel, but even more starkly unacceptable during a pandemic when jails and prisons populations have ceased in-person visitations.”
“This vote marks an important step toward reconnecting families with their loved ones behind bars,” said Scott Roberts, Senior Director of Criminal Justice Campaigns at Color Of Change. “For years, prison telecommunications firms have exploited incarcerated individuals and their families, charging excessive, abusive, often insurmountable fees for phone calls. And with jails and prisons cancelling visitation in the wake of COVID-19, these firms’ price-gouging threatened to tear these families apart. The HEROES Act provides relief for the overwhelmingly Black, Brown and cash-poor individuals victimized by predatory pricing, and we thank the House for its vote to put families before profits.”
“Until we #FreeThemAll, it is absolutely urgent that we end the deeply immoral practice of price gouging communications between people who are imprisoned and their loved ones. We are grateful to the House for taking this important step, and call on the Senate to follow suit immediately,” said Aura Kanegis, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the American Friends Service Committee.
“Families have carried the heavy burden of the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls for far too long. This burden is both economical and emotional especially during this global pandemic. Families are worried about paying their bills while also being fearful about the health of their incarcerated loved one. We applaud the House for supporting fair, reasonable, and just prison phone call rates,” said Dr. Artika R. Tyner, Law Professor and Director of the University of St. Thomas Center on Race, Leadership, and Social Justice.