Yesterday, Congressman Bobby L. Rush re-introduced legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate prison phone call rates. For three straight Congresses, Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Bobby L. Rush has introduced federal legislation and advocated nationally for dramatically reducing exorbitant rates that are charged for phone calls between families and their loved ones. Yesterday, Rep. Rush re-introduced legislation again -- the Family Telephone Connection Protection Act of 2013 -- that would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate exorbitant, interstate calling rates for prison phone calls between parents, spouses and families with children. A diverse coalition of both liberal and conservative groups has also called for regulatory action to resolve this matter.
"Communication, along with the ability to express love toward family, is a fundamental need, and one's humanity does not perish when they enter the prison system," said Rush.
Rush has repeatedly expressed his concern over the fact that families whose phone calls pass through prison networks have to pay up to twenty times the amount that families whose calls travel through traditional public landlines and wireless networks end up paying. Rush has described this issue as the "family divide," a term analogous to the "digital divide" that exists with regard to unequal access to broadband services.
Although this is an issue that affects families from all backgrounds (over 2.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison), more than sixty percent of incarcerated prisoners are African or Hispanic American. In addition, many prison offenders come from economically vulnerable communities; unreasonable prison phone rates severely harm and exploit prison populations.
Scores of states receive hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions from companies to land exclusive contracts to provide prison phone services without facing competition from other lower-cost providers; being a suggested reason for why prison phone call rates have skyrocketed. Bloomberg reports the lucrative market for prison phone services, which totals approximately $1.2 billion dollars in annual revenues is currently dominated by two companies, Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies, Inc.
At the local level, in late 2012, a proposal to cut prison phone rates by half and to double the time limits allotted for calls was placed before the Cook County Board. The requests for proposal are now being disseminated to potential bidders.
Coincidentally, yesterday was also the FCC's deadline for filing comments on its notice of proposed rulemaking on the issue of inmate calling services. In September, 2012, Reps. Rush and Henry A. Waxman sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski urging the FCC to act on these high phone rates that unfairly punish families for having a relative in prison.