Advocates say this action is long overdue and necessary to ensure people with disabilities have access to communications while incarcerated.
Today, civil rights leaders and advocacy organizations working across various issues in criminal legal and prison reform are commending the Federal Communications Commission’s order on prison communications, particularly the long-awaited action to affirm the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities.
People with communication disabilities are often forced to overcome barriers — or often are denied access — to necessary calling services while incarcerated, leaving many completely disconnected from telecommunication for months, years or decades, even. The FCC’s actions affirm this right to communication by requiring all carceral communications providers to provide access to services, such as direct or point-to-point, video communication in any correctional facility where broadband is available. The order also clarifies that this access should be provided at no cost to the consumer. Advocates hope to see these principles adopted and enforced without exception even though a preliminary FCC draft initially excluded some types of telecommunications from these cost pronouncements.
Advocates say that clarifying the obligations of communications providers, and the rights of people with communication disabilities, will give incarcerated people and their loved ones a means to retain their humanity, dignity, language, and community, among other things, during incarceration. They also say this problem further highlights the need for Congress to pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, which would give the FCC the authority the agency needs to ensure just and reasonable rates and equitable access for all communications by incarcerated people.
In addition to the long-awaited changes in disability access, the Commission plans to make two rule changes to prevent consumers from being overcharged.
Roxanne Zech and Talila Lewis, Advocates at HEARD said, “For over a decade, HEARD, together with incarcerated disabled people and their loved ones have led a campaign to bring an end to the extreme and deadly isolation caused by the deprivation of telecommunications for disabled people confined in this nation’s carceral facilities. Today, we honor the life and legacy of Alphonso Taylor, a Black deafdisabled formerly incarcerated man and cherished member of HEARD’s team, who tragically passed away just two months after explaining to the FCC the horrific isolation he and other disabled incarcerated people experienced, and pleading for the Commission to take action to ensure that incarcerated disabled people had free and accessible telecommunication. He passed away in part due to not having the very access he and so many others demanded.
HEARD supports the order’s requirement that carceral facilities provide free access to all relay services, including point-to-point video calling and captioned telephone service. This order comes as a direct result of generations of disabled incarcerated people, their loved ones, advocates, and community members who have fought tirelessly for something that should have been provided decades ago.”
Blake E. Reid, Counsel to Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI) said, “The FCC’s order represents a meaningful step toward tearing down barriers for incarcerated people with disabilities who have long been denied not only equitable access to stay connected with their families, friends, advocates, and networks of support, but deprived of basic civil and human rights to communication and language — with profound, unjust, and deadly consequences. More action is needed, including robust enforcement of disability laws and support from the Department of Justice, to realize the goals of this order. But the FCC’s action establishes an important commitment to ensuring that the telecommunications industry lives up to its responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Communications Act to ensure that incarcerated people with disabilities have meaningful access to the services necessary for functionally equivalent communications.”
Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf said, “Incarceration is inherently confining and isolating but even more so for deaf, hard of hearing, DeafBlind, and DeafDisabled people who have no way of communicating with the outside world. Through the stout leadership of HEARD and the supporting advocacy of NAD and other disability rights organizations, this unacceptable and unequal barrier is being reduced by the FCC’s order. However, the work does not stop here. Much more is needed to ensure meaningful access, particularly crucial support from the Department of Justice. We look forward to collaboration between the FCC and the DOJ on robust oversight and enforcement.”
Cheryl A. Leanza, Policy Advisor for the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry OC Inc. said, “We are celebrating this action to bring equity to incarcerated people with disabilities. The Commission has focused on bringing down costs many times and has finally been able to bring people with disabilities more fully under its umbrella of protection. Without accessible communications, incarcerated disabled people are without any way to communicate — not with the prison or jail staff, not with the other incarcerated people. It is truly cruel and horrifying. We are looking forward to a decision that gives people with disabilities their rights without exception and without cost, as the law requires. Thank you, to Chair Rosenworcel for leading the agency to this result. The Commission’s decision to close a few loopholes which permit consumers to be overcharged is also welcome.
We also hail this action as further evidence that Congress must pass the Martha Wright Act working its way through the House and Senate. When the FCC has authority to protect consumers, it will act. All people should be protected for all calls, all charges. The momentum is strong in Congress, with legislation having received the support of the National Sheriffs Association and a positive, bi-partisan, unanimous voice-vote in the Senate Commerce Committee. Passage this year is critical.”
Ariel Nelson, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center said, “We applaud the FCC’s action to ensure accessible communications services for incarcerated people with disabilities, and eagerly await a decision that requires provision of these services without exception and without cost to the consumer. We now call on Congress to pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, which would enable the FCC to ensure just and reasonable rates for all calls by incarcerated people.”
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, Senior Counselor, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society said, “The FCC continues to address inequities in assuring affordable access for incarcerated people and their families. The FCC has more to do, and our coalition will press for prompt action in the coming months. However, only Congress can fix the biggest problem: giving the FCC jurisdiction to control the prices of intrastate phone calls. We hope for good news on that front as well.”
Al Kramer, Senior Fellow at Public Knowledge said, “Incarcerated people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or possess a speech disability are particularly vulnerable to becoming isolated during incarceration. Public Knowledge commends the FCC for taking decisive action to require ICS providers to offer the specialized communications and calling services these people need. Public Knowledge also commends the agency for taking initial steps and proposing even more safeguards to block ICS providers from siphoning for their own use funds from any accounts established by inmates or their families to pay for calling services. We also urge the agency to ban the commissions ICS providers pay to incarceration facilities for the privilege of operating as a monopoly – these ‘commissions’ are expenses that only serve to raise phone rates rather than helping to pay for the service. Finally, the Commission must stop allowing ICS providers to include in their rates charged to all users of all their services the expenses they incur in providing certain special services (such as operator assistance) and also separately charging extra fees directly to the users of those services.”
Molly Fohn, Policy Program Manager and Voqal said, “We congratulate the FCC for affirming the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities to communicate with their loved ones free of charge. We strongly encourage further progress for all incarcerated members of our community through passage of the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act in Congress. We hope the FCC will keep this decision in mind when they gain responsibility to regulate intrastate communications for all incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones.”
The following groups joined together to issue this statement: Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Color of Change, HEARD, National Association of the Deaf, National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), National CURE, Prison Policy Initiative, Public Knowledge, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry, The Wright Petitioners, Worth Rises and Voqal.
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