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Making Sure the Cost of Phone Calls from Prison Isn’t Punishingly High

Phone calls to families and loved ones help prisoners cope better behind bars and ease their transition back into society -- but only if they can afford the call

prison phone

For years, advocates in New Jersey have been fighting for prisoners’ rights to make phone calls to their families and loved ones at reasonable rates, rather than shelling out for the inflated prices charged by some contract providers.

Legislation passed in both houses this week would close the loopholes that let some companies levy exorbitant tolls, setting the price for domestic calls at 11 cents per minute and capping the charge for international calls at 25 cents per minute. The measures would also ban commissions (or kickbacks) made by the phone companies to the county.

An identical bill lapsed on the governor’s desk in 2014.

The new legislation (S-1880) passed the Senate 35 to 2 and the Assembly 57 to 20 and is a carryover from last session’s bill (A-4576).

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer) who sponsored the bill issued a statement about the need for these new regulations. She called for an end to “price gouging” and said the current cost of in-state calls at some facilities can be as high as 33 cents per minute, which can prevent inmates from connecting with their loved ones.

For prisoners in New Jersey, calling home comes at a cost. Inmates can either call collect (and hope that their party is at home) or can set up a debit calling system in which the inmate pays out of a commissary or other prepaid account.

Calling collect works if the called party’s phone company allows collect calls, but they can’t be made to cellphones, office phones ,or hospitals. Debit billing requires inmates to purchase calling time by submitting a form to the business office of their prison or jail.

The third option is a prepaid collect system called Advancepay, in which the inmate’s family can set up an account with independent providers like Global Tel Link (GTL) and all charges are deducted from the payer’s account.

In 2000, a woman named Martha Wright filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) after the prison phone bills she accrued from calling her grandson in jail became unpayable. The suit claimed that the exclusive contracts correctional facilities held with for-profit phone companies caused phone rates to skyrocket and violated inmates’ civil rights.

At the time, Wright had been paying anywhere from $25 to $60 for each phone call every Sunday for nearly two decades. Costs got so high that inmates paying their own bills often couldn’t afford calls at their current wage rate of between 12 cents and 40 cents an hour. Advocates and petitioners like the Prison Policy Initiative denounced the contract companies’ actions as “profiteering” and called for reform. In 2001, the judge ruled that Wright and the advocacy organizations of inmates and their families had to take their petitions to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

More than 12 years later and after relentless petitioning, the FCC passed a measure to cap national rates for out-of-state calls at 21 cents per minute for debit or prepaid calls, and 25 cents per minute for collect calls. They also called for a cap of 11 cents per minute for in-state calls from state and federal prisons and 14 cents per minute for calls in county jails (adjusting rates according to population). The FCC also banned most add-on fees and restricted ones they could not remove (like mandatory taxes and regulatory fees). The new rules were set to take effect in March 2016, but due to petitions filed against the FCC by private phone-contracting companies, the order was stayed until June 20.

In 2014, New Jersey banned all kickback commission fees for state and county facilities tied to the state contract (17 facilities) and reduced rates to less than 4.5 cents per minute. However, at least three counties not tied to the state contract use contractors like GTL and Securus Technologies, which are currently litigating the FCC regulations. Cape May, Salem, and Passaic counties are able to charge higher rates because of their independent contracts. These jails can earn commissions of 50 percent to 70 percent according to state data collected through OPRA requests by the advocacy group New Jersey Phone Justice.

Under the proposed legislation, these commissions would be eliminated and all correctional facilities would have to abide by the state rates even in counties that don’t have state contracts.

Turner, the bill’s sponsor, said families often have to bear the burden of these high costs and many are already struggling financially and cannot afford to pay exorbitant phone bills. Turner said keeping the lines of communication open between inmates and their family helps to improve behavior during incarceration, and family support is also crucial to successful reentry and reduced recidivism.

According to a 2012 report from the Vera Institute for Justice, incarcerated individuals who remain in contact with family members are more likely to succeed after their release. The study found that inmates rely on family members for support during their reentry into the community and keeping in touch with them during their sentence greatly increases the likelihood that they will make a smooth transition back into society.

Karina Wilkinson, a member of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), said if signed into law, these new regulations would have life-changing effects on incarcerated immigrants as well.

“Folks being held while seeking asylum aren’t guaranteed an attorney,” Wilkinson said. “They depend on talking to family members to gather evidence about their cases and they should be able to make those calls.”

Currently, three facilities in New Jersey (Bergen, Hudson, and Essex) house immigrant detainees awaiting trial and, according to Wilkinson, charge anywhere from $18 to $45 for a 15-minute international call.

International calls are not required to be provided at every jail/prison, so state regulations haven't applied to them in the past. Contractors have been making their own rates since the state contracts only cap "intrastate" and "interstate" calls (same as FCC regulations). This bill would put the 25 cent cap on all facilities that provide international calls.

Alina Das, associate professor of clinical law at NYU and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic, said if the governor signs the bill, it would be a huge step in prison reform in the state.

“The state legislators are showing true leadership by taking power away from out-of-state private prison phone companies and are doing the right thing for New Jersey residents,” Das said. “Everyone benefits when people stay connected. Inmates integrate back into communities, children stay in contact with their fathers and siblings in jail -- it has a tremendously positive effect. There’s no place for profiteering when you care about creating a safe community.”

Carly Sitrin is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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