New York City Council Passes Ordinance to Make All Jail Phone Calls Free
by Derek Gilna
On July 18, 2018 the New York City Council passed Introduction No. 741-A, which ended the practice of telecom companies profiting from providing phone services for prisoners at inflated rates. Instead, all domestic calls made from the city’s jail system, including the Rikers Island complex, will be free for both prisoners and those receiving the calls.
For over a decade, prisoners’ rights advocates have fought against the exorbitant costs of prison and jail phone calls. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.1; Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1]. A percentage of the revenue generated from prisoner calls is typically returned to the corrections agency that contracts with the telecom company. That was the arrangement New York City had with its jail phone service provider, Securus Technologies, which gave the city $5 million in annual “commission” kickbacks, resulting in inflated phone rates.
The legislation passed by the City Council states: “The city shall provide telephone services to individuals within the custody of the department in city correctional facilities at no cost to the individuals or the receiving parties for domestic telephone calls. The city shall not be authorized to receive or retain any revenue for providing telephone services.”
Twenty criminal justice advocacy organizations, including the Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of Prison Legal News, issued a joint statement heralding this important victory for prisoners, as well as their families.
“As advocates for the elimination of financial profits from the injustice system,” the statement said, “we welcome the City Council’s passage of legislation to ban City revenue from jail phone calls and make these calls free for people and their loved ones. Thousands of people in NYC jails are there solely because a court set money bail beyond what they could afford, 88% are Black and/or Latino, and nearly all experience deep poverty. Now, they will be able to maintain crucial lifelines to loved ones in the community without sacrificing scarce dollars for the profits of jail profiteer Securus.”The statement noted that “Altogether, the enactment of this legislation, which was sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, will save impacted families approximately $8 million every year – money that can go toward essentials and remain in their communities.”
Commenting on the new law, Johnson said: “Families and friends of incarcerated individuals should not have to choose between hearing from their loved ones and paying their bills just because these individuals cannot afford to pay for phone calls.”
The law is scheduled to go into effect in April 2019; phone calls in New York City jails will continue to be provided by Securus.
Sources: Intro. No. 741-A, New York City Council (July 18, 2018); www.hrw.org