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WASHINGTON — On Monday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D–Illinois) introduced the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2019 (S.1764), which would restore the FCC’s authority to stop prison-phone companies from charging incarcerated people and their families predatory rates.

The bill is named in honor of Martha Wright-Reed, who fought for affordable prison-phone rates for more than 20 years. Phone calls were the only way she could stay in touch with her grandson, Ulandis Forte, who attended a Senate FCC-oversight hearing on Wednesday where Sen. Duckworth shared the story of the family’s advocacy.

As a blind elderly woman, Wright-Reed could neither write letters nor travel long distances for in-person visits during Forte’s incarceration. She became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to the FCC phone-justice rules that former Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn implemented and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai later refused to defend in court.

Free Press Action Digital Campaign Manager Lucia Martínez made the following statement:

“Prison-phone rates are astronomical, with the price of a local 15-minute phone call costing up to $25 in some states. Many families simply can’t afford these rates, which force them to choose between putting food on the table and staying in touch with loved ones. For the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, this can mean forgoing phone calls that could help them maintain healthy relationships.

“This kind of exploitation is part of this country’s long history of systemic racism, which has allowed both for-profit prisons and prison-phone companies to benefit from mass incarceration, which predominantly targets people of color.

“Prison-phone companies like Securus Technologies have long preyed on vulnerable families and fought to overturn the protections that former FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn implemented. As a private attorney, FCC Chairman Pai represented Securus, and we’re concerned he’s still on the company’s side based on how he refused to defend an important part of those rules against a court challenge.

“We applaud Senator Duckworth and her co-sponsors Senators Booker, King, Markey, Portman and Schatz for introducing the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act. The bill would restore the FCC’s authority to stop prison-phone companies from price gouging incarcerated people and their families. This legislation would let the FCC address predatory intrastate phone rates, and make phone calls to and from prisons, jails and detention centers more affordable for families trying to stay connected. We call on lawmakers to stand up for vulnerable communities and pass this crucial bill.”

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