UCC celebrates law limiting prison phone rates
After more than five years of lobbying and a decade of work on the issue, UCC Media Justice (formerly OC Inc.) celebrated a major victory Jan. 5 when President Joe Biden signed a law to limit the rates that communications providers serving prisons, jails and detention centers can charge incarcerated persons and their family members.
The bipartisan Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022 requires the Federal Communications Commission to ensure just and reasonable charges for “any audio or video communications service” used by incarcerated persons to communicate with others outside the institutions where they are held, “regardless of technology used.” The new law defines these as “advanced communications services,” which will also require that incarcerated disabled people can use and access them, consistent with the current protections for disabled people more generally.
UCC Media Justice built and led a large, bipartisan coalition that included groups ranging from Color Of Change and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, to Worth Rises and the National Consumer Law Center to Americans for Prosperity and R Street.
The law was named in memory of Wright-Reed, who first filed suit more than 20 years ago to challenge the exorbitant telephone rates she had to pay to stay in touch with her then incarcerated grandson, Ulandis Forte. In 2013, the FCC finally agreed to address prison telephone rates.
The new legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and championed by recently retired U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), amends the Communications Act to address a 2017 court decision that struck down much of the FCC’s previous work to cap rates, and broadens the agency’s authority to cover more services.
At a Jan. 12 press conference, Forte thanked Cheryl Leanza, policy adviser for UCC Media Justice, the congressional sponsors and former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn for “being fearless” in their advocacy for prison phone justice. “Conquering this issue through this ongoing struggle has been nothing short of amazing,” he said.
“My grandmother’s goal has always been to help shed light on the fact that family and friends have to be able to contact, communicate, love, share, and grow together,” he said. “This bill means the world to me, because my grandmother suffered greatly, in order for us to remain in contact, sometimes choosing to go without medication just so she could pay an overpriced phone bill.”
Leanza said that in the past, “Family, pastors, attorneys and others had been forced to pay unconscionable rates in order to keep in touch with loved ones, offer counseling and connection or vindicate legal rights.” She also praised the “steadfast commitment” of the legislation’s congressional champions, “who pressed ahead against terrible odds,” and the National Sheriff’s Association for “coming to the table and standing by the legislative compromise it made.”
Leanza said coalition members would look forward to working with the FCC to implement the new law over the next two years.
The United Church of Christ’s work on the issue goes back decades. Frank Krogh, a member of Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, Va., represented the Martha Wright-Reed coalition on a pro bono basis when it first petitioned the FCC to address the issue. UCC Media Justice pursued the reforms with other civil rights and justice advocates starting in 2012.
Sara Fitzgerald, a UCC news volunteer, is a member of Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, Va.
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