Imagine having to go into debt to stay in touch with a loved one — all while fearing for their safety and well-being. That is the grim reality facing 1 in 3 families of incarcerated people in the United States, thanks to the sky-high costs of phone calls from prison. So it is welcome news that California has moved against this cruel situation. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a law to make all phone calls from state prisons free. Now it’s time for other states, and Congress, to act.
It can cost staggering sums for people in prison to communicate with the outside world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average charge for a 15-minute call is $5.74 — but prices can go as high as $24.82. Because 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. That, coupled with the fact that many facilities select which companies to use based on kickbacks rather than service, has permitted rapacious corporations to charge exorbitant rates without consequence. The industry earns more than $1.4 billion annually, largely profiting off low-income, incarcerated people of color.
Allowing inmates to affordably speak to relatives and friends would be a more humane approach — and a more effective one. Studies have shown that frequent and 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 in the country to sign legislation making prison phone calls free; the law is going into effect this month. New York City and San Francisco have taken similar steps, while several other states have reduced rates through regulation. Now, thanks to years of work from volunteers and advocates, California is the latest — and largest — jurisdiction to act. But millions of Americans in other areas are still struggling to afford such a basic comfort.
More states should enact legislation to cover costs or regulations to establish rate caps. There is also considerable work to be done at the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission can regulate fees for interstate calls, but a court decision in 2017 blocked it from setting restrictions on intrastate fees, which make up the vast majority of prison phone costs. The agency retains some authority: It recently moved forward on a rule that would help disabled people get access to improved communications technology and services, and it could crack down on companies that “double dip” by charging add-on fees.
Yet the policy that would make the greatest difference nationally is the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, named for a woman who had to choose between paying for her medication and calling her incarcerated grandson. The legislation would authorize the FCC to set “just and reasonable” rates for both interstate and intrastate calls, as well as video calls. Congress should expeditiously approve this bipartisan bill — and state officials across the country should continue to bring down costs for the incarcerated in whatever ways they can.
The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board
Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom. Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).