Prison and Jail Phone Reforms Needed in New Jersey
by Karina Wilkinson
Two prison phone service providers, Global Tel*Link and Securus, continue to overcharge prisoners and their families for calls made from prisons and jails in New Jersey. While federal regulations capped interstate (long distance) calls from correctional facilities beginning in February 2014, the State of New Jersey has allowed a grave injustice to continue by permitting companies to charge high rates and allowing county jails to accept commissions on in-state calls ranging from 50% to 70%. Such commissions amount to legal “kickbacks” that let phone companies share profits with state and local governments at the expense of those who can least afford it.
Prior to the Federal Communication Commission’s order capping interstate phone rates, charges of $.33 per minute from New Jersey state prisons and as high as $15.00 for 15-minute calls from county jails have translated to hundreds and even thousands of dollars of debt for prisoners and their families. New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees* and other advocacy groups have received reports of parents forgoing calls with their children because they couldn’t afford the cost.
“It is absolutely obscene that a private vendor can charge fees that amount to a tax on children, grandmothers and families in crisis,” wrote Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman in the Trenton Times.
Following the FCC’s order, New Jersey initially lowered phone rates in state prisons to $.19 per minute, and in early September 2014 dropped the rates a second time to $.15 per minute. The most recent contract renewal extends for three months, ending in December 2014. Although the state has lowered both in-state and interstate rates to $.15 per minute, it has not gone far enough in adopting fair and just phone charges. The state could follow New York’s example and adopt a flat rate of $.05 per minute; New York contracts with the same prison phone service provider as New Jersey, Global Tel*Link.
County jails are doing the minimum to comply with the FCC’s order. They’ve lowered interstate rates to $.21 per minute for debit and prepaid calls and $.25 per minute for collect calls, but left in place high rates and commissions for in-state calls. It is now less expensive for county jail prisoners to call outside the state than to call one town over.
As examples of some of the phone rates at local facilities, calls from jails in seven counties cost $5.50 for 15 minutes within the same area code (except local calls) and $8.50 outside the area code but still within New Jersey. Seven other counties charge $4.75 for most calls within the same area code and $7.75 outside the area code but still within the state. Out-of-state calls, meanwhile, are capped at $3.15 for debit and prepaid calls and $3.75 for collect calls. This makes no sense.
Limiting calls to family members is only one aspect of this injustice. There are around 2,200 beds in New Jersey for people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the majority are in county jails. These detainees are awaiting immigration hearings for which they have no guarantee of legal representation if they cannot afford it. Many must represent themselves in court, and phone calls are crucial for accessing the necessary documents and information for their cases – yet they are still subjected to high phone rates.
Within the next several months, the Board of Public Utilities is expected to vote on a petition seeking to open a process to regulate phone rates in correctional facilities and lower in-state rates at both county jails and state prisons. For more information on the petition filed by a coalition of advocacy organizations, including New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the law firm of DLA Piper and LatinoJustice, visit www.njphonejustice.org.
* New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees is a statewide coalition which includes organizations that visit detainees in detention and provide immigrants with legal and religious services.
Karina Wilkinson is a co-founder of the Middlesex County Coalition for Immigrant Rights and a member of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees and New Jersey Phone Justice.
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