MediaJustice

For Immediate Release: May 12, 2020

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

Stimulus Funding for Communications Access for Low-Income and Incarcerated Families Meets Temporary Need, Long Term Expansion Necessary, Advocates Say

“As long as cost remains a barrier to communication, a lack of access will determine who lives, works, and learns.”

Today, House Democrats released their latest Coronavirus stimulus package bill, which includes provisions expanding communications access for low-income and incarcerated families. 

The FCC recently ensured that no current subscribers will be disconnected from the program, and today’s House Democrats’ bill temporarily expands Lifeline benefits to unlimited talk, text, and 4G data, and creates a broadband benefit of $50 per month for families qualifying for Lifeline, reduced school lunch, and other federal programs to apply to a broadband plan of their choice. The House bill also includes the Marth Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, capping prison phone rates to 4 cents a minute and prohibiting site commission fees.

In March, MediaJustice, along with more than 250 other organizations, sent a letter urging the FCC to expand Lifeline benefits to include unlimited talk and text, ensure no current subscribers are disconnected, and add a broadband benefit to the Lifeline program. MediaJustice’s Right2Connect petition, and recent virtual townhall, have pushed leaders to extend free phone and video calls to incarcerated individuals through the pandemic. 

Said Steven Renderos, Executive Director of MediaJustice: 

“The stimulus package finally addresses our right to communicate and we urge Congress to urgently pass this relief bill so millions of families can access the phone and internet services they need to navigate this pandemic effectively. Now that 30 million people have filed for unemployment, the lack of access long felt by lower-income communities is now facing the entire country. The government must ensure that all Americans remain connected to the essential services, information, and communications they deserve, for the length of the pandemic and beyond.” 

“While a welcome step, we must recognize that this bill only provides temporary relief, falling far short of meeting the deep needs that existed long before the pandemic, and are even greater in its wake. The need to see a doctor through telemedicine or speak to an incarcerated loved one isn’t temporary, and support for that shouldn’t be either. As long as cost remains a barrier to communication, a lack of access will determine who lives, works, and learns. With prison phone call rates now affordably capped, states must step up to cover the cost of those calls so families with incarcerated loved ones can stay connected with their loved ones for free. We urge the House and Senate to swiftly pass this stimulus bill, and to provide funding to ensure the long-term expansion of Lifeline and affordable prison phone calls to keep all Americans connected, regardless of ability to pay.” 

Said Cheryl Leanza from the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc. (UCC OC):

“The right to connect with each other during the novel coronavirus pandemic is not only a matter of mental health and economic realities, it is a matter of life and death.  If all people, including low-income people, can afford high quality broadband, their lives can continue, to some degree, through personal connections, education, jobs, obtaining access to emergency benefits while they shelter in place to stop the spread of the virus.  Frontline low-income workers can use their mobile phones as they can keep our food shelves stocked, our hospitals clean and our emergency response ready to respond at need.  If families can reach their incarcerated loved ones at fair rates, they can monitor their health and welfare and ensure they receive access to essential care given the horrific spread of COVID-19 among people in jail, prison or detention.  The proposals set forth today in the CARES II draft are essential for meeting these emergency needs.  We strongly urge Congress to quickly pass this proposal into law.”

Said Leo Fitzpatrick, Policy Counsel at Free Press Action: 

“Today, House Democratic leadership introduced the next installment of COVID-19 relief legislation containing desperately needed connectivity assistance for millions struggling under the pandemic and its economic impact. Among its many provisions, the Act authorizes billions of dollars for emergency broadband benefits programs — which would include providing up to $50 per household for broadband to Lifeline subscribers and those who lost income or their jobs due to the pandemic. It also remedies the FCC’s striking lack of authority to ensure just and reasonable rates for all calls between incarcerated people and their families, made all the more necessary in the current pandemic. Originally introduced by Representative Rush as a standalone bill, the incorporation of this phone justice bill in this larger package recognizes what we have known all along: exploitative profiteering off incarcerated people and their families as they struggle to stay connected is unjustified and cruel, but even more starkly unacceptable so during a pandemic when jails and prisons populations have stopped in-person visitations.”

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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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