The COVID 19 pandemic has unarguably impacted everyone in some way. In March 2020 I was sent home from school to live with my parents. As a late bloomer, most of my friends consist of people I met in college. People who were suddenly living hours away, countries away. Staying connected with my support network got a lot harder. My friends and I worked hard to find fun new ways to stay in contact with each other during one of the most trying times of our lives. We had so many options that staying in contact was easy if we wanted to. Zoom, Facetime, Skype, BlueJeans and so many other video chat services were readily available to us and as students we were able to use their premium services for free. Looking back however, as we are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, I am taking a more critical view on how the government and large corporations chose to respond to this health crisis.
Near the beginning of the pandemic we all saw a rise of COVID cases in jails and prisons. People who were incarcerated at the time didn't have easy access to news about the disease, masks, or the ability to social distance. Prisons created in-person visitation restrictions to prevent cross contamination and more spreading of the virus. Many families and friends were not able to visit prisons in-person to stay in contact with their loved ones. People in prison depended on phone and video calls to call home and stay connected with the outside world. Most of these telecommunication devices are owned by private corporations that charge fees for phone calls. These fees average about $1 per minute making a short 15 minute phone call at least $15. These fees add up to unreasonably large costs, and certainly costs that folks who are disproportionately poor, struggle to fund.
So here it is: I don't understand why so many people are being required to pay such high fines for a normally readily available service. What I find particularly appalling though is how companies that can afford to provide premium services to 20 million college students for free (probably more people if you include professors as well as high school students and teachers), but not even offer any form of service to incarcerated people. In 2020 there were approximately 6 million people incarcerated, people who had just as much a need for free or affordable video services as young college students, if not more.
As it stands currently "consumers cannot choose among competing providers, which produces locational monopolies and monopoly profits at the expense of rate-payers". People in prison are not being provided other options for communication. Privately owned companies are providing services to prisons with promises of exclusivity so they can charge high prices. Let's say everyone who is currently incarcerated today made one 15 minute call home. That's 30 millions dollars for private companies and organizations profiting off of the prison industry. To be abundantly clear: this industry is profiting off of the need for people to stay connected, to talk with their loved ones.
The Martha Wright- Reed Act, named for Martha Wright-Reed who was forced to choose between purchasing medication and communicating with her incarcerated grandson, aims to amend the Communications Act of 1934 by "requir[ing] the Federal Communications Commission to ensure just and reasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in correctional and detention facilities." By promoting this Act, incarcerated people will have more access to means of communication with their loved ones without fear for the financial impacts it may cause.
You can support the Martha Wright-Reed Act here by signing this petition or contacting your Senator:
Written By: Nia Lewis