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For Martha Wright-Reed, the cost of a simple phone call from her grandson sometimes meant going without her medicine. Her grandson, Ulandis Forte, said that while he was incarcerated, the exorbitant phone fees forced Reed to choose between paying for medications and calling him to offer much-needed support. “More people deserve the love and support that I received from my grandma,” said Forte. Reed’s experience moved her to start organizing for prison phone justice, and now her activism has inspired current advocates who are seeking legislative reforms. As a result, a new bill in Congress bears her name: The COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act.

Tuesday morning, Forte was joined by advocates from Worth Rises, MediaJustice, Color of Change, Free Press, and the United Church of Christ as well as representatives from the offices of Georgia Rep. Bobby Rush and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth for a digital petition delivery of almost 80,000 signatures calling upon Congress to pass the bill.  

The COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act would eliminate the kickbacks that correctional facilities receive from the prison telecom companies that they contract with. Prison telecom corporations are a $1.2 billion dollar industry, charging prices as high as $24 for a 15-minute call. As a result, the companies have earned tremendously from consistent flow of people into carceral facilities.

“When we talk about shifting systems in this country that have led to the vast gaps in racial inequality, we have to reverse the perverse incentives that make it profitable to lock people up,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change.

If passed, the bill will also grant the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) full authority to regulate all fees for prison phone calls. During the event, Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor at the United Church of Christ, noted that the FCC currently supports the push to lower prison phone rates, but the commission currently only has the authority to regulate interstate calls, which comprise about 20% of prison calls.

Finally, the act will immediately lower the phone rate cap during the COVID-19 pandemic, driving down rates to 4 to 5 cents per minute. The current cap implemented by the FCC is 14 cents per minute for prisons and 16 cents per minute for jails. While momentum around prison phone justice has been building in recent years, the pandemic makes it uniquely urgent. Due to the virus and social distancing protocols, in-person visits to correctional facilities have been banned, rendering phone calls necessary for maintaining contact and staying up to date about the health and wellbeing of loved ones both inside and outside.

Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, shared that even prior to the pandemic, a third of families have gone into debt trying to maintain contact with their incarcerated loved ones. In the midst of job loss, this moment is only exacerbating that hardship for these families, many of whom, Tylek says, are essential workers.

“They deserve our support and appreciation,” said Tylek, “not predatory exploitation.”

Families with incarcerated loved ones, activists, and their allies may be able to find hope in recent wins within the prison phone justice movement. The Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act passed the House in May, the CARES Act enacted earlier this summer required the Bureau of Prisons to make phone and video conference calls free during the pandemic, and just this week San Francisco permanently made prison phone calls free.

Should Congress heed the demands of these advocates, activists, and the almost 80,000 petition signers, the passage of the COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act could be the next step toward ending prison profiteering. It would also enable families with incarcerated loved ones to connect without making sacrifice or moral concessions, an experience that Wandjell Reneice Browning, a directly impacted prison phone justice advocate, spoke intimately about.

“No child, no family member should ever be told that their love is too expensive,” said Browning.

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.