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Incarcerated people pay about 5 dollars for a 30-minute phone call. A new bill wants to change that

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

California is making calls from prison free. It's the second state to do so after Connecticut. But elsewhere in the U.S., incarcerated people and their families pay an average of $5 for a 30-minute phone call. Prison reform advocates have long argued these are predatory prices. All of this could change if a bill currently under consideration in the Senate becomes law. It has bipartisan support and would give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to regulate calls from prison, including how they are priced. Jessica Rosenworcel is the chairwoman of the FCC, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So why are phone calls in so many jails and prisons so expensive?

ROSENWORCEL: This is a complicated problem, but it is one we have got to solve. You know, you and I make a phone call - if we don't like a provider, we just choose someone else. Jail or prison develops an exclusive contract with one provider. So those who are incarcerated and their families are stuck with that one provider and the often really expensive rates they charge for phone calls.

RASCOE: Do you think that jails and prisons intentionally make contracts that have, like, expensive rates for phone calls because they don't want prisoners to be able to easily access, you know, their family and people outside of prison?

ROSENWORCEL: I can't say that I know what their motives are, but I can say this. When those who are in prison have regular contact with family and friends, it tends to reduce recidivism, and we should be invested in that. And that's especially true in the United States, where we have roughly 5% of the world's population but about a quarter of those who are in prison. There are 2.7 million kids in this country who have a parent in prison. We want to give them a fighting chance to be able to maintain a relationship. But, you know, for so many of these families, having a single call is a real strain on the household budget. I mean, for many of these families, these calls, just a handful of them, costs more than you and I pay for a monthly unlimited plan.

RASCOE: I understand the FCC has tried in recent years to lower these costs but hasn't been able to in a lot of cases. Why is that?

ROSENWORCEL: That's right. It was about two decades ago that a grandmother, Martha Wright, filed a petition at the FCC saying the rates were just too high. She couldn't keep in touch with her grandson. And one of my former colleagues, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, took a look at that petition and convinced the rest of the Federal Communications Commission we should do something about it. So the agency set to studying those rates and all of their complex elements and tried to lower them, but our handiwork was sent back to the FCC by the courts. Repeatedly, they said, we didn't have enough information to lower those rates. And they also told us we didn't have authority to lower rates that were within the state or local. We only had the authority to lower rates that go between states. And so we have jurisdictional issues, legal issues. And what has resulted is every year, the FCC keeps on trying to find new ways to chip away at these rates because we know it's too costly. It's unjust. And we're going to have to find a way to do it even if the courts keep throwing up these roadblocks.

RASCOE: How would the Senate bill that's currently under consideration affect your agency's ability to lower the price of these calls?

ROSENWORCEL: So there are two essential elements to that bill, which is named, by the way, for that grandmother who filed that first petition at the FCC. And Senator Duckworth introduced this bill with bipartisan support. And it does two really big things. The first is it gives the Federal Communications Commission authority over intrastate rates. That means the local calls, the within state calls that the court said we cannot oversee or regulate. And then it also has an eye to the future and recognizes that video visitation is going to be an increasing form of contact and make sure that the FCC has authority over that, too.

RASCOE: And so the language of the bill says it would require the FCC to ensure just and reasonable charges for communications in prisons and jails. Like, how would the FCC determine what is just and reasonable?

ROSENWORCEL: Well, just and reasonable is one of those legal terms of art that the FCC has been dealing with since the Communications Act of 1934, which is when we got our start. And what it means is that those rates are fair and not discriminatory. And I think that's really important because the idea is no matter who you are or where you live in this country, whether you're incarcerated or not, you should be charged about the same to make some basic phone calls.

RASCOE: That's FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

ROSENWORCEL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.