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Picking up a phone and calling a loved one may sound simple, but its power is immeasurable – especially for the more than 2 million incarcerated individuals across America. Yet during the holidays, while millions of other Americans gather together to connect with family and friends, many of those incarcerated will be unable to speak with their families due to the high costs of placing a call from a prison or jail. This is unacceptable and, ultimately, counterproductive towards reducing recidivism across the country.

Imagine for a moment being unable to speak with your parents and siblings or grandparents during the holidays. There’s more that we can do to make sure the price of a phone call doesn’t prevent parents from reaching out to their children, or children from hearing the voice of their parent on Christmas, New Year’s Eve or any other day.

Across the political spectrum, most of us agree that our criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. Important progress was made when the bipartisan First Step Act was signed into law, implementing the most sweeping set of prison and sentencing reforms since 2010. But there’s much more to be done.

Studies have shown that keeping close connections with family members while incarcerated can help reduce recidivism, enhancing public safety and saving taxpayer dollars.

The vast majority of those incarcerated will eventually be released, so it’s only common sense that – once they’ve repaid their debt to society – we should do whatever we can to ensure they have a chance to succeed. Preserving contacts with family members during incarceration can help make that a reality, but market failures unique to the prison telecommunications industry makes that more difficult. Fortunately, there is bipartisan agreement that existing law should be clarified to enable the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to finally address those market failures.

A bipartisan coalition of Senators representing a diverse range of states from Ohio to Hawaii to Tennessee and beyond, have come together this Congress in support of the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act. This bipartisan legislation would clarify the FCC’s ability to end the prohibitively expensive and often predatory price of prison phone calls, helping families keep in touch while reducing recidivism.

It’s not fair that video visitation and phone call services in prisons are often unreasonably expensive and of a far lower quality than the telecommunications services used by the public. That’s why it’s important for Congress to clarify the FCC’s authority to step in to establish rules for intrastate prison calls. It’s an important development in making life – both during incarceration and after – more successful.

On top of helping the millions of Americans behind bars in this country, knowing that a loved one or legal support is just a dial tone away could help thousands of migrants being held at American detention centers – particularly the children this Administration have separated from their parents.

Imagine being torn away from your family, in a country you don’t know, then being denied the basic right to contact those who could help you. For children being held at the border or at these immigration facilities over the holidays, a phone call could mean everything. It could put them in touch with family members, diplomatic officials or consular support. It could connect them to legal services. It could mean that information about what’s happening to them in these facilities gets outside their razor-wire fences and reaches the rest of us. But only if lack of access to a telephone prevents them or their loved ones from connecting.

As the newest mom in the Senate and the only mom at the FCC, we share a deep commitment to equitable access to communications. Like so many Americans, we have been shocked to the core over the past two years by the images of children in cages and the troubling treatment of families at the border. We cannot simply look away and ignore them.

Beyond making sure they are taken care of in a humane way, we believe that these children and their families deserve the ability to make phone calls – as policies that are already on the books allow. But, according to news reports, there is evidence suggesting this is not happening right now.

Whether you’re incarcerated or being held at a migrant detention facility, you should have access to reasonably-priced phone calls so you can keep in touch with family and the people who support you. Innocent children who did not commit crimes shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to speak with parents who are incarcerated. The power to reach out and make a call can make all the difference in someone’s life – and everyone, whether or not they are incarcerated, deserves that opportunity.

So this year, as we hang our holiday lights and prepare to ring in the New Year, let’s work to make it less prohibitive for those separated from family and friends, a more humane way of staying in touch with those who matter to them the most.


This piece was co-writtern by U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.