For Immediate Release: March 24, 2020

Contact: Melissa McCleery, [email protected], 484-201-3778

Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, FCC Must End Exploitative Profiteering on Prison Phone Calls, Say Civil Rights Advocates

Groups call on FCC to make calls for incarcerated individuals free as families fight to stay connected through health crisis

As incarcerated individuals are deprived of family visits across the country and the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, civil rights groups—advocating for accessible and affordable communications for justice-involved families—urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to immediately request that prison phone corporations pledge to make phone and video calls in prison, jails, and immigration detention centers free. 

Read MediaJustice’s petition here: 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai must ask the prison phone industry to join the 390 other corporations that have signed the Keep Americans Connected Pledge and not leave our most vulnerable families unprotected from service termination during the coronavirus pandemic. Because the existing pledge is not enough to assist incarcerated families, he must go further by requesting a pledge from prison phone companies to offer free phone and video calls with no fees to incarcerated and detained individuals starting immediately and for the next 60 days. And the FCC must also deny Securus Technologies’s self-serving and short-sighted petition to waive its obligation to pay into the Universal Service Fund (USF) at a time of national emergency when low-income people, schools, libraries and rural telehealth providers will need the fund most. Not only should the FCC deny the requested waiver, but it should also prohibit prison phone corporations from passing USF fees onto their customers.  

Few facilities are exploring free communication in extremely limited circumstances, such as one or two free calls each week, for five to fifteen minutes. In light of suspended family visitation, these measures don’t go far enough to ensure that families can remain in touch with their incarcerated loved ones at such a crucial time. No national guidance or consistent practice has been put into place and contact between family members remains severely impaired. 

Justice-involved families in areas most at-risk for the virus with limited access to health care are more disconnected than ever from loved ones. Predatory prison call rates, which could cost over $1 a minute, and exploitative charges for video calls have forced families to choose between needs—like food and power—and regular contact. This problem is further exacerbated as low-wage workers are losing their jobs and families are being asked to socially distance to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.  

Said Steven Renderos, executive director of MediaJustice: 

“At a time when we’re cracking down on anyone exploiting people suffering from this global pandemic, predatory prison phone companies must be at the top of the list. In the midst of the COVID-19 global health crisis, when justice-involved families are struggling to maintain connection to confirm their health and safety, communication from prisons must be free. For over a decade, companies have raked in billions from families so desperate to keep in contact that they make the choice between phone calls and food. The Federal Communications Commission must step in to provide relief and ensure that all families stay connected during this global pandemic.”

Said Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor of the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, OC Inc.:

“The prison phone industry is glaringly absent from the list of companies that have pledged to take voluntary action to keep people connected during this time of crisis. Phone calls and video connections become more important than ever when incarcerating institutions are ending in-person visitation. Yet instead of stepping up, the prison phone industry is attempting to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to its own economic benefit.

“FCC Chairman Pai has shown leadership in seeking voluntary pledges of support during this time, and we strongly urge him to immediately focus on the needs of families who are already suffering the worst predatory communications rates in the country.”

Said Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy at Dignity and Power Now:

“Calling loved ones from inside should have never been commodified in the first place. Crisis moments like these often highlight and amplify long-standing and egregious problems that live inside systems, especially cynical systems like our criminal punishment program. Phone calls and digital calls must be free, and hours for calling must be expanded. Anything less is an affront to the millions of people across the country who continue to have their families harmed by incarceration and detention.” 

Said Wandjell Reneice Browning, directly impacted advocate: 

“Children of incarcerated individuals have been left out of the conversation when it comes to parental and financial support during this COVID-19 pandemic. The very last concern a child should have is if they’ll be able to speak with their loved one during this frightening time in our nation. Imagine being a scared child thinking the world was about to end, and you couldn’t speak to your loved one.”

Said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises:

“Just when we think they have exhausted all the ways to prey on incarcerated people and their families, prison telecom corporations shock our consciences with new ones. Their brazen request for emergency relief from paying their fair share to support low-income families with telecom services and grossly inadequate solutions for connecting families and their incarcerated loved ones make a mockery of the stress that COVID-19 has imparted on these vulnerable families. It’s predatory and it’s shameful, but FCC Chairman Pai can and must put pressure on them to make all prison and jail communication free.”

MediaJustice, United Church of Christ OC Inc., Worth Rises, Dignity and Power Now, and Wandjell Reneice Browning have been leaders in the Prison Phone Justice national campaign for affordable communications access for justice-involved families, successfully pushing the FCC to cap the rate of long-distance prison calls to 21 cents and 25 cents per minute for debit and collect calls, and to eliminate and cap other predatory fees, like charges for using a certain payment method. 

Families with incarcerated loved ones are deserving of this support and the FCC should urge the Prison Phone Industry to get on board as so many other companies have done.

The Keep Americans Connected Pledge eliminates service termination and late fees for 60 days due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but because so much of incarcerated communication comes from prepaid accounts, these benefits will not be enough to assist justice-involved families. Nor will the Pledge’s commitment to free wi-fi hotspots assist most families trying to reach incarcerated loved ones.

Securus Technologies claimed to have made $700 million in gross revenue in 2015, and has petitioned the FCC to halt its contributions to the Universal Service Fund, intended to promote universal access to telecommunications services in the United States. 

New York City and San Francisco made phone calls from local jails free in 2019 and statewide bills to make phone calls in prisons and jails free have been proposed in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Federal efforts to reduce prison phone call rates were rolled back under the Trump administration as the FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, directed FCC lawyers to stop defending caps on call rates approved by the agency in 2015.

MediaJustice is dedicated to building a grassroots movement for a more just and participatory media—fighting for racial, economic, and gender justice in a digital age. MediaJustice boldly advances communication rights, access, and power for communities harmed by persistent dehumanization, discrimination and disadvantage. Home of the #MediaJusticeNetwork, we envision a future where everyone is connected, represented, and free.


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