MediaJustice

For Immediate Release: Thursday, April 16, 2020
Contact: Melissa McCleery, [email protected], 484-201-3778

Disconnected Families Urge FCC to Support Free Prison Phone Calls, Lifeline in COVID-19 Response, with Commissioners and Advocates

Impacted families, FCC Commissioners and Advocates Discuss Needed Steps to Increase Communications Access for Lower-Income and Incarcerated Families

Today, at the MediaJustice-hosted #Right2Connect Virtual Townhall, FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks joined family members disconnected from loved ones, and dozens of leading advocates to discuss the urgency of increasing access to communications for lower-income and justice-involved families through the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates demanded that the Federal Communications Commission extend free phone and video calls for incarcerated families and Lifeline program assistance to the millions of Americans who cannot afford phone and internet service. 

View the townhall here:  https://www.facebook.com/MediaJustice

This week, 27 members of Congress urged that $1B in Lifeline assistance, to help families afford phone and internet service, be included in a future COVID-19 relief package as healthcare, education and other essential needs are increasingly accessed online. Last week, Congress authorized the Bureau of Prisons to provide an increased allotment of free video visitation and telephone calls during the COVID-19 emergency, through a provision in the latest stimulus (CARES Act). This provision covers 10 percent of incarcerated individuals, behind bars in federal prison, whereas FCC action would extend to the 90 percent of incarcerated individuals who are in non-federal facilities. 

“We simply can’t afford to leave any community offline or cut anyone off in this crisis,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

“The access we have is not the access we need,” said Steven Renderos, executive director of MediaJustice. “The FCC has a responsibility to remove the cost barrier that keeps millions of families disconnected from their loved ones, lifesaving health care services, and necessary online education during this pandemic. Predatory prison phone call rates and the cost of phone and internet services are more out of reach than ever for families who are struggling to stay afloat in this crisis. Communications is a right and it is the job of the FCC to see to it that this shameful and dangerous gap is closed immediately.” 

“Growing up with incarcerated parents was hard enough, and not being able to afford to talk to them on the phone made it even harder,” said Wandjell Reneice, prison phone justice advocate. “My mom tried to call us every day, but we couldn’t answer every day because the calls were too expensive. I remember the pain and frustration of not being able to talk to my mom, because growing up you need that connection. I feel that same fear and disconnection now in the COVID-19 crisis, because I’m not able to get in touch with my cousin to make sure he’s safe. Making a phone call to the people you love is a right, and it should be treated that way. The FCC can step in right now to make calls free for families like mine, and they must.”

“Congress needs to provide the funding to meet the nation’s connectivity needs—as highlighted by Senator Blumenthal and 26 other Senators this week—to provide affordable access to essential phone and internet service for tens of millions of people impacted by the current healthcare and economic crisis, said Carmen Scurato, senior policy counsel at Free Press Action Fund. “No one should be forced to endure this pandemic without being able to reach telemedicine, receive education, apply for benefits and ballots, check on loved ones, or work remotely. The digital divide, leaving behind seniors, the unemployed and underemployed and people of color, threatens both our livelihood and our lives.”

MediaJustice, Access Now, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Public Knowledge, Open Technology Institute, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Libraries without Borders and Common Sense, are demanding the the FCC and Congress expand broadband and Lifeline access during the COVID-19 crisis. View the petition herehttps://act.accessnow.org/page/59048/action/1

Advocates participating in and contributing to #Right2Connect Virtual Townhall include: The United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc.; Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Black Alliance for Just Immigration; Free Press Action; Access Now; National Consumer Law Center; Common Cause; Open Tech Institute; Color of Change; Dignity & Power Now; and Worth Rises.

For interviews with advocacy leaders and directly-impacted individuals on why the FCC must ensure families remain connected throughout the COVID-19 crisis, contact Melissa McCleery, [email protected], 484-201-3778.

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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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