A massive second stimulus package that would have provided $3 trillion in relief due to the ongoing coronavirus health pandemic included a much-needed cap on the cost of phone calls placed by inmates in prisons and jails to loved ones.
Passed on May 18, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act included programs and policies that would have expanded health insurance, rural broadband connectivity, benefits for veterans, financial assistance to the U.S. Postal Service and assistance to federal aviation and railroad workers. In addition to that assistance, it would have provided another $1,200 economic relief check to millions of Americans at a time when unemployment filings are at a record high.
One little known provision of the HEROES Act is a cap on the cost of phone calls placed between inmates and their families.
Telephone calls from jails and prisons are often portrayed in TV shows and the movies as a lifeline between characters in custody and those on the outside world. Often left out of the script is just how much those calls can add up in a relatively short period of time.
At one federal prison in California, phone calls cost $3.25 and are capped at 15 minutes per session. That works out to more than 21 cents a minute, more than double what Sprint charged for long-distance service in the mid-1990s.
One woman in Massachusetts said she spends more than $6,000 a year connecting with her incarcerated husband over the phone. Her calls costs between $5 and $6 a minute each, and that’s before the prison’s phone service tacks on administrative fees.
While inmates may make for unsympathetic subjects, the exorbitant cost of phone calls is problematic for everyone: Studies have shown that when inmates have contact with their family and friends, it helps them become positive, productive members of society at the end of their sentences. But the expense of phone calls has the opposite effect on disenfranchised inmates who are too poor to afford them.
To make matters worse, the ongoing health crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has led to jails and prisons halting in-person family visits. The phone remains one of the few tools available to inmates who need to maintain their relationships with loved ones on the outside.
Advocates have long pushed for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency that regulates telecommunication services in the country, to impose a per-minute fee cap on the cost of prison phone calls. Lawmakers finally appeared ready to act with the passage of the HEROES Act, which capped collect phone calls at $0.75 per 15-minute session, making the per-minute cost around $0.05. Prepaid phone calls, where inmates pay for the cost of the session, would be limited to $0.04 cents per minute.
The HEROES Act passed on May 15 with a 208-199 vote that was largely divided along party lines, with Democrats largely favoring the bill and Republicans opposing it.
“This is the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history, and it is needed now more than ever,” Bianca Tylek, an executive director with the advocacy group Worth Rises, said in a statement. “Right now, in the middle of an economic crisis, predatory prison telecom corporations are still charging families as much as $25 for a 15-minute call with an incarcerated loved one. The exorbitant cost of these calls has long pushed families—disproportionately Black and Brown due to racist policies and policing—into debt, but times are even harder due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But the measure still has to be passed by Senate lawmakers and signed into law by President Donald Trump. Both of those things are unlikely after lawmakers in the Senate and officials with the Trump administration said they were hesitant to go forward with a second economic stimulus package.
Republican senators have called the House bill “dead on arrival” and have resisted efforts to take up the measure. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has acknowledged the need for further economic relief, but says he intends to work with officials within the Trump administration to determine what’s needed and what’s not.
Whether that need will include a financial break for inmates who need to connect with their loved ones remains to be seen.