I Was Incarcerated. These Are the Devastating Consequences of Predatory Prison Phone Rates.

Tell Congress to pass the bipartisan Martha Wright Act this year.

By Reginald Belle

Have you ever had to choose between phoning your sick mother or brushing your teeth? How about between wearing shoes or calling your favorite niece to sing happy birthday?

I’ve had to make these decisions before, and I don’t wish it on anyone — and that’s because I was once incarcerated.

The cost of a phone call from prison is often predatory and burdensome. One in three families with an incarcerated loved one goes into debt trying to maintain contact. And outrageously high phone rates make it more difficult for incarcerated people to succeed when they return home — when they are supposed to be free.

But Congress can do something about it. There are two pieces of legislation, both named after Martha Wright — a grandmother who was a leader in fighting for just and reasonable phone rates before her death — that aim to address this problem. These bills must be passed immediately so that families across the country can have peace of mind knowing that they can communicate with their incarcerated loved ones without going into debt.

The cost of these phone calls was more than financial; it also cost me relationships with family and friends. It was always devastating to realize that someone I love changed their number — all because they were ashamed to tell me that the cost of accepting calls from prison, or sending money to me to make calls, was too much of a financial burden.

I will never forget the sadness I felt throughout the years when the holidays would come around.  At times, I barely had enough funds in my commissary account to make a call or two — causing me a great deal of anxiety. Not being with my family was already difficult to process, but not being able to communicate with them — and with my friends — during joyful times of celebration caused me to withdraw.

Over the 26 years I was incarcerated, I often went through periods of depression thinking about how I would possibly afford to call home at a cost of $3.45 for a 15-minute call, at a monthly cost of $72, when the average prison salary was approximately $35 per month. When you factor in paying court fines at a minimum of $25 every three months — combined with the costs of purchasing personal hygiene items from the commissary, a decent pair of shoes to have on your feet, and food to meet your dietary needs — it was unmanageable.

Every financial decision is enormous and impacts every other aspect of your life in prison. When you are forced to think of everything as a “want” versus a “need,” you end up making the difficult decision to not call home because the cost is just too high. You simply cannot afford it. These stresses also extend to families, who struggle to provide the much-needed support while also trying to balance the costs of living in society. This burden impacts everyone involved.

Not being able to call home also impacts mental health, emotional health, and physical health. Depression, sadness, isolation, and loneliness cause numerous physical health problems. It also impacts you socially. When you have limited or no contact with the outside world, prison conditions consume you — robbing you of your social skills and your ability to have and show love and compassion. It impacts you emotionally. Your emotions impact your thoughts. Your thoughts impact your behavior. And you stop caring about what happens to you.

I am grateful that I now work for an organization that is helping to change this situation. The Leadership Conference is urging members of Congress to lower prison phone rates and to remove this financial burden from incarcerated people and their families. The suffering is real, and the impact of these exorbitant rates extends far beyond time spent in prison.

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the current marketplace for communication in correctional facilities has failed to produce reasonable and competitive rates. Incarcerated people and their families are not able to choose the phone company they use to communicate.

Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates phone rates, and although Congress gave the FCC authority over all rates for incarcerated people in 1996, a decision by a federal appellate court in 2017 derailed advocates’ previous decades-long effort to protect consumers.

The bills that would fix this problem are Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s bipartisan S. 1541, the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, and Rep. Bobby Rush’s H.R. 2489, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act. These bills must become law because of their key features:

  • Protect consumers. The bills reaffirm Congress’ 1996 decision giving the FCC authority over all carceral rates and require rates to be “just and reasonable” — the same standard that protects all other consumers.
  • Future-proof. Today’s correctional communications providers utilize advanced technology to save costs and provide security. Both bills apply regardless of technology used, including video communications.
  • Fair ratemaking process. Both bills ensure that the FCC can use its standard processes to adopt rates. S. 1541 requires a rulemaking to be completed in 18 months and permits the FCC to use appropriate data. H.R. 2489 requires regular rulemakings to ensure rates keep pace with current trends, prohibits per-call charges, and limits ancillary fees.
  • Site commissions, interim rate cap. H.R. 2489 prohibits payments from a phone company to a carceral institution and adopts an immediate interim rate cap of 4 and 5 cents per minute until the FCC completes its rulemaking proceedings.

Predatory phone rates eroded almost all the relationships I had prior to going to prison and caused me not to be able to build relationships with new family members who were born into the family. My relationships with my nieces and nephews are that of a stranger who suddenly appeared in their lives and changed the family dynamic. The cost of not being able to call home and communicate while in prison is still impacting my life to this very day. 

But I’m now in a position to make a difference. Please reach out to your members of Congress today and urge them to pass these bills! Incarcerated people and their families have waited long enough and deserve phone justice now.

Reginald Belle is the campaigns and programs fellow at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.