August 06, 2020

With In-Person Visits Suspended, Harris, Colleagues Advocate for Access to Free Telephone Calls and Video Conferencing for Incarcerated People in Next Relief Package

Letter to Senators McConnell and Schumer highlights urgency to connect families as many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Thursday joined Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and 12 colleagues to send a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) urging Congress to include provisions in the next economic relief package to provide access to free phone and video calls for incarcerated people in state and local facilities during and after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic, these calls are more necessary—and cost prohibitive—than ever. Studies have shown that keeping in touch with family members while incarcerated can help reduce recidivism, enhancing public safety and saving taxpayer dollars.

“As it remains unclear when effective treatment or a vaccine will be available, ensuring that incarcerated people can stay connected with their loved ones while in-person visits are suspended is critical—but we must also support solutions to help keep families connected after the pandemic,” the senators wrote.

“Regular communication with loved ones has consistently proven to help incarcerated people succeed in reentering the workforce after their release, and allowing them to stay connected will benefit them and their communities in the short and long term. We urge you now to include provisions in the next economic relief package to provide access to free phone and video calls for incarcerated people and their families both during and after the pandemic.”

Harris, Klobuchar, Duckworth, Booker, and Schatz were joined by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Angus King (I-ME), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI).

The full letter text can be found below and HERE:

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

We write to urge you to include provisions in the next economic relief package to provide access to free phone and video calls for incarcerated people during and after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

America's prisons and jails currently house more than 2.2 million people, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. Before the pandemic, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for housing and food, and one in 29 children had a parent incarcerated. In addition, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt in order to stay connected with them, and women shouldered 87 percent of these costs. Now, as many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic, these calls are more necessary—and cost prohibitive—than ever.

On July 16, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to lower the rate caps for interstate calls from prisons and jails, providing some relief for incarcerated people and their families. But interstate calls make up only 20 percent of all prison phone calls in the U.S., and courts have restricted the FCC’s authority to regulate the other 80 percent of calls made within states, allowing telecommunications providers to charge families up to $25 for fifteen minutes. Without action from Congress to address the rates for instate calls, families will continue to suffer.

As it remains unclear when effective treatment or a vaccine will be available, ensuring that incarcerated people can stay connected with their loved ones while in-person visits are suspended is critical—but we must also support solutions to help keep families connected after the pandemic. Regular communication with loved ones has consistently proven to help incarcerated people succeed in reentering the workforce after their release, and allowing them to stay connected will benefit them and their communities in the short and long term. We urge you now to include provisions in the next economic relief package to provide access to free phone and video calls for incarcerated people and their families both during and after the pandemic.

Thank you for your attention to this highly important issue. We stand ready to work with you to help keep families connected at this critical time.

Sincerely,

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