Yesterday, October 6, 2021, Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, OC Inc., testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Energy & Commerce Committee at a hearing titled, “Strengthening Our Communications Networks to Meet the Needs of Consumers.”
Leanza’s oral testimony focused on expressing support for pending legislation sponsored by Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Il), H.R. 2489, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act. The legislation will immediately set interim rates for calls to incarcerated people of 4 and 5 cents per minute, firmly establish the Federal Communications Commission’s jurisdiction over all calls to carceral facilities, and require the FCC to conduct regular proceedings to ensure rates keep pace with market conditions. At this time, because of a court decision in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission cannot regulate local calls that occur inside a state, and FCC analysis showed that in some states those calls cost as much as $24.80 for a 15-minute call.
Leanza spoke of the impact high rates have on families, asking the Subcommittee “Could your marriage survive on a few 15-minute calls per week?” and noting that families are going into debt to pay for phone calls. She quoted Diane Lewis, mom of an incarcerated son:
I’ve seen the difference between my son, who has a lot of support, and others in prison who can’t make phone calls or never have family visits. There’s a big difference, and it’s why they struggle while inside and often go back after. It’s the anger and depression that comes with doing time by yourself, and the lack of practical support needed when you get out.
She invoked the biblical teaching of Matthew 25:36-40, urging Congress to pass H.R. 2489 in order to care for those society often considers “the least” among us.
Earlier this week UCC OC Inc. joined with New America’s Open Technology Institute, Free Press, the National Consumer Law Center, Public Knowledge and the Benton Institute to file comments at the Federal Communications Commission which is conducting a proceeding on whether to lower long distance/interstate rates and fees and on further steps needed to address the communications needs of people with disabilities who are incarcerated. In August, UCC OC Inc. collaborated with Public Knowledge to file a Petition for Reconsideration of the FCC’s previous order on carceral communications, urging the Commission to provide a more robust legal analysis and to ensure no loopholes permit states or localities to charge rates that exceed existing caps.