Letter to National Sheriffs' Association - COVID-19 phone costs, 2020
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April 23, 2020 National Sheriffs’ Association 1450 Duke Street Alexandria, VA 22314 Dear Sheriff Daron Hall and all other Sheriffs, The COVID-19 outbreak has overwhelmed many public systems, and the correctional system is no different. Prisons and jails are breeding grounds for infection as people are crowded into tight quarters and forced to share cells, and showers, making social distancing impossible and allowing disease to spread rapidly. To make matters worse, many incarcerated people are now also facing isolation from their families thanks to the high rates charged by prison telecom corporations for phone calls, video calls, and emails. These conditions put not just incarcerated people at grave risk of COVID-19 infection, but also the correctional officers and staff entrusted with their care who go home to their families every day. Correctional health is public health, and the only solution to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19 is to depopulate prisons and jails by releasing people, especially those who are elderly, immuno-compromised, have less than a year left on their sentences, or held pretrial on charges that do not involve allegations of serious and intentional physical harm. For those left behind, communication is among their most important needs, now more than ever, especially as prison and jail visits are suspended. Beyond the grave risk of infection, incarcerated people are now also facing isolation from their families, which is exacerbated by the predatory rates prison telecom corporations charge for phone calls, video calls, and emails. The COVID-19 outbreak is highlighting the tragic reality that incarcerated people and their families have been living with for decades: the inability to afford communication. Even under normal conditions, families struggle to stay connected with incarcerated loved ones. Prison telecom corporations charge families up to $25 for a 15-minute call, 1 forcing families to decide whether to pay for rent or a call with a loved one behind bars. In fact, nearly one third of families with incarcerated loved ones goes into debt trying to stay connected, and 87% of those carrying the burden of these costs are women, largely women of color. 2 However, things are anything but normal today, and these families, like millions of others, are struggling to stay afloat during this crisis. They are dealing with delayed pay, job loss, unexpected elder and childcare, and, in the worst cases, their own illness. They should not also be worried about whether they can afford to be in contact with incarcerated loved ones at this critical time. Moreover, continuing to charge for communication from prisons and jails will lead to serious consequences for public health. Families who are unable to pay for calls will suffer from stress and despair, which have been shown to weaken immune systems and make people more likely to succumb to infection. We must address this emergency by providing incarcerated people and their families free access to communication immediately. Doing so will not only alleviate the unjust financial burden placed on these families and prevent worsening health conditions, but also benefit our community in the long-run by allowing incarcerated people to strengthen relationships with their support networks. More specifically, we ask that you use your executive powers to prohibit correctional administrators and their telecom vendors from charging families or their incarcerated loved ones for phone calls, video calls, and emails during the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand that some prison telecom vendors are offering families one or two phone calls each week in response to the public health crisis, but this is far from enough and insulting to tight-knit families. Families cannot be expected to ration their calls at a time like this. In fact, in the past few weeks more than 550 telecom corporations have signed the Keep Americans Connected Pledge established by the Federal Communications Commission to ensure no U.S. resident has their communication service terminated due to their inability to pay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 3 Notably missing from the signatories are the prison telecom corporations. 1 State of Phone Justice, Prison Policy Initiative (2019), available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/state_of_phone_justice.html. 2 Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, Research Action Design (2015), available at https://ellabakercenter.org/who-pays-the-true-cost-of-incarceration-onfamilies. 3 Keep Americans Connected, Federal Communications Commission (2020), available at https://www.fcc.gov/keep-americans-connected. Bringing in more than a billion dollars in revenue together each year, prison telecom vendors can afford to provide families and their incarcerated loved ones with free communication for months at the very least. We implore you to demand they do so. If necessary, we ask that you use emergency funding to gap stop losses in commissions to government agencies during the crisis. And finally, once we have made it passed the COVID-19 pandemic, we ask that you take executive action and support legislation to provide free communication for the long-term. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the high cost of prison and jail communication that separates families can no longer be ignored. You must act now to protect families with incarcerated loved ones. The cost of a call should never bar someone from ensuring their loved one is healthy, or worse yet, from comforting them if they are not. Sincerely, Andrea James Executive Director, National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls Dorsey Nunn Executive Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children Kevin Ring President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums Gina Clayton-Johnson Executive Director, Essie Justice Group Ebony Underwood Chief Executive Officer, WE GOT US NOW Bianca Tylek Executive Director, Worth Rises Rashad Robinson President, Color of Change The undersigned join us in this call for action. 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Riley, Deputy Majority Leader & State Representative, District 46 Josh Elliott, State Representative, District 88 Joshua Hall, State Representative, District 7 Kevin Ryan, State Representative, District 139 Kim Rose, State Representative, District 118 Michael Winkler, State Representative, District 56 American Civil Liberties of Union of Connecticut Collaborative Center for Justice Communities and Families Raising for Justice Connecticut Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative (IMRP) Connecticut Prison Book Connection New England Innocence Project New Haven Women's Resettlement Working Group Once Incarcerated Our Piece of the Pie (OPP) Peace Affirmation and Justice Committee of First Congregational Church-Guilford Progressive Prison Ministries Sex Workers and Allies Network Southern New England Conference United Church of Christ Stop Solitary CT Women Against Mass Incarceration Yale Undergraduate Prison Project Advocacy DELAWARE Delaware Center for Justice Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice FLORIDA KidsMates Florida Cares Charity Florida Justice Center Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund GEORGIA Dramatic Impulse Theatre Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys Southern Poverty Law Center HAWAI’I Community Alliance on Prisons Hawai‘i Friends of Restorative Justice IDAHO Idaho Innocence Project ILLINOIS Believers Bail Out Building Families Together Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance Chicago Community Bond Fund Children and Family Justice Center Clean Power Lake County Coalition to Reduce Recidivism Crossroads Fund Heartland Alliance Illinois Innocence Project Illinois NOW John Howard Association Lawndale Christian Legal Center Legal Council for Health Justice Logan Square Neighborhood Association Moms Demand Action Mother's Against Wrongful Convictions Nehemiah Trinity Rising ONE Northside Restore Justice Shiloh Baptist Church of Waukegan The #LetUsBreathe Collective The People's Lobby Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force Workers Center for Racial Justice INDIANA Constructing Our Future IOWA Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault Midwest Innocence Project National Alliance on Mental Illness-Iowa KANSAS Midwest Innocence Project KENTUCKY Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty LOUISIANA Daughters Beyond Incarceration Hope House Innocence Project New Orleans Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition Southern Poverty Law Center Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) MARYLAND Charm City Care Connection Reproductive Justice Inside University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic MAINE New England Innocence Project MASSACHUSETTS Emancipation Initiative Families for Justice as Healing Greater Boston Legal Services Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement (MASC) New England Innocence Project Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts Southern New England Conference United Church of Christ Unitarian Universalist Mass Action MICHIGAN Advocacy, Re-entry, Resources and Outreach (ARRO) Detroit Justice Center Developing Despite Distance Michigan Citizens for Prison Reform Michigan Innocence Clinic Michigan Liberation Nation Outside Notes From The Village Safe & Just Michigan MINNESOTA Innocence Project of Minnesota ReEntry Matters MISSISSIPPI Innocence Project of Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center Southern Recovery Advocacy MISSOURI Midwest Innocence Project NEBRASKA Midwest Innocence Project Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty NEVADA Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty Rocky Mountain Innocence Center NEW HAMPSHIRE Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform New England Innocence Project NEW JERSEY Occupy Bergen County Universalist Congregation at Montclair – Undoing Racism Committee Unitarian Universalist FaithAction NJ NEW MEXICO New Mexico Innocence and Justice Project NEW YORK Gustavo Rivera, State Senator, District 33 Luis Sepúlveda, State Senator, District 32 David Weprin, Assemblymember, District 24 Harvey Epstein, Assemblymember, District 74 Inez E. 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