Bills would pull the plug on sky-high jail phone costs

  • Inmate Lance Shaver talks on the phone at the Albany County Correctional Facility in Albany, N.Y. Two bills in Massachusetts would address the high costs of phone calls for prisoners and their families. AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2019 10:48:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For some families whose loved ones are incarcerated, a 15-minute in-state phone call can cost up to $7.50.

That’s the going rate at the Franklin County House of Correction. In Hampshire County, the cost is cheaper at $3.15 per 15-minute call, according to a list of rates at prisons and jails across the state compiled by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and the Prison Policy Initiative, but advocates have long denounced the burden of telephone costs on inmates and their families.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers have introduced two bills that would address these high costs.

“For many incarcerated people, the phone is a lifeline,” said Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services. “And the phone is especially a lifeline for their loved ones. The burden on prison families for phone use is tremendous.”

The two bills, S.1372 and S.1430, were part of a hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on Wednesday on a swath of bills regarding state corrections.

The goal of the first bill, S.1372, is simple: provide telephone calls in county and state jails for free. The second bill, S.1430, calls for telephone contracts in jails to be at “the lowest cost to end consumers,” while also banning the monetary commissions that authorities receive from their deals with telephone service providers.

According to the criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, 90 percent of the nation’s jail telecommunication market is owned by three companies: Securus, Global Tel Link and ICSolutions. Securus is in charge of Franklin County’s phones, while ICSolutions deals with those in Hampshire County.

​​​​In testimony Wednesday, the executive director of Worth Rises, Bianca Tylek, citing a 2018 study by the state Department of Correction, said Massachusetts families pay $24.2 million annually in phone calls and associated fees to jail contractors. About 41 percent of that, she said, goes back to jails in commissions.

In its contract with ICSolutions, which was negotiated in 2015, the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office receives 78.1 percent commission on gross revenue, according to documents posted by the Prison Policy Initiative. In Hampden County, these commissions are set at 85 percent with an annual guarantee of $850,000.

“This is part of a much bigger problem of prison profiteering,” Tenneriello said.

In a statement, Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick J. Cahillane said, “The Hampshire Sheriff’s Office will continue to follow the Federal Communications Commission guidelines on phone and phone revenues in correctional settings, and we will follow whatever laws are passed by the Commonwealth.” ICSolutions did not respond to request for comment.

Massachusetts is hardly the only state with high jail phone fees, and some localities around the country are beginning to make changes that significantly decrease costs. This year, both New York City and San Francisco made some jail phone calls free for inmates and their families.

Tenneriello said the high cost of jail and prison calls disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities, as the families hit by these rates are often low-income and belong to communities of color in cities far removed from rural jails. One in nine black children in the U.S. has a family member incarcerated, she said, so easier access to calls could lead to stronger families through ease of communication.

“It’s a terribly regressive tax on some of the most vulnerable children and families in the state,” Tenneriello said.

Legislation that would eliminate fees for inmates and their families could help decrease recidivism rates across the state, Tenneriello said, arguing that there are “decades of research that says family connections are the single most important factor in creating success when you re-enter the community.

“We want people to come back to our community and thrive,” she said.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, has signed on to S.1430, the bill that would require local and long-distance contracts to be negotiated at the lowest available price for end consumers, while ending such commissions.

“People who are incarcerated benefit from having a connection with people they care about,” Comerford said. “If we make it too arduous and expensive, we risk boxing them out from these opportunities.”

Comerford noted that state prisons, in contrast to their county jail counterparts, charge only $1.50 for a 15-minute in-state call. The bill she supports would give county jails the ability to opt in to contracts the Department of Correction strikes for state prisons.

“I think we need the fairest business on behalf of the Commonwealth,” Comerford said. “It’s an example where the moral and ethical virtue of the bill is matched by a pragmatic result, a pragmatic win,” she added.

Comerford hasn’t yet signed on to the bill that would make phone calls free, she said it was “a good idea” that she might have to co-sponsor.

Legislation that ends site commissions and calls for lower prices is a positive step in the right direction, Tenneriello said — although “you would still have a model where these phone companies are profiting off our most exploited and vulnerable communities,” she said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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