NJAID & NYU IRC and Wright Petitioners File Comments on FCC Commissioner Clyburn’s #Solutions2020 Call to Action Plan

January 11, 2016

Mignon Clyburn, Commissioner
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

RE: #Solutions2020 Comment on Prison Phone and Video Rates by New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees and New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, Public Notice #342689

Dear Commissioner Clyburn,

Members of the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees and New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic have commented on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) docket #12-375 and at a New York City listening tour forum you conducted since early 2013. Our first comments addressed interstate phone rates in New Jersey prisons and jails, followed by intrastate phone rates and, finally, international rates. In the current comments, we will update you with information concerning: 1) the recent New Jersey law capping phone rates and banning commissions in the state, 2) changes in phone rates and commissions in two county jails, 3) the closure of two facilities that we previously reported on and the recent surge in immigration detention, and 4) issues related to video visitation.

When we started our New Jersey Phone Justice Campaign, the state prisons charged a 33-cent flat fee for calls, and took a 41% commission. New Jersey county jails were charging even higher rates for non-local calls and taking commissions between 50% and 70%. Today, most facilities in New Jersey are charging 4.384 cents per minute , the rate negotiated in the current five-year state contract, and no commissions.

Read more here.

Read comments from the Wright Petitioners, signed on to by NJAID, here. These comments include extensive information on rates in facilities around the country, and highlight massive disparities in rates around the country, potential violations of the FCC’s Order to eliminate surcharges, and contain a call for costs of systems to detect contraband cellphone use not to be passed on to incarcerated individuals and their families.

Passaic County Cuts Phone Rates

The Passaic County Freeholders voted to cut phone rates for inmate domestic telephone calls to $0.11 per minute, with no commission to the County, ensuring compliance with the new New Jersey statute (P.L. 2016 Chapter 37). The rate will exist on a month-to-month basis until a new contract is implemented. As of June 28, 2016, the rates had been $2.55 for the first minute, 25 cents for additional minutes, and the County was taking a 53% commission.

The resolution, dated December 13, 2016, can be read below.

Passaic Phone Rates Resolution

Assemblyman Johnson Introduces Strong Video Visitation Legislation in NJ

Legislation Introduced to Restore Face to Face Family Visits in New Jersey Jails
Advocates Applaud Legislators Call for Reduced Cost for those Incarcerated and their Families

For Immediate Release, December 8, 2016 Contact: Karina Wilkinson, KarinaWilkinson@gmail.com

Trenton, NJ – Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) introduced legislation this week to guarantee face to face family visits for individuals incarcerated in New Jersey. The bill, A4389, would cap costs at 11 cents per minute, ban commissions, require refunds for poor quality and ban fees on professional visits from lawyers and clergy. Similar legislation governing phone rates in prisons and jails was signed into law in August, 2016.

“We applaud Assemblyman Johnson for taking the lead on ensuring that people incarcerated in New Jersey and their families are not taken advantage of by an unregulated industry that is only interested in profits and counties that are looking to gain revenue off of those who can least afford it,” said Karina Wilkinson of the New Jersey Phone Justice Campaign (NJPhoneJustice.org). “We also welcome Congresswoman Duckworth’s efforts at the federal level to require the FCC to regulate video visitation.”

Also this week, Congresswoman Duckworth (IL-8) introduced federal legislation, the Video Visitation in Prisons Act of 2016, that would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate video visitation services, including capping rates, ensuring quality and banning the elimination of in-person visits.

Read more here.

Senator Booker Files Resolution Asking FCC to Cap Domestic Prison & Jail Phone Rates

Today’s press release from Senator Booker and Congressman Rush:

Sen. Booker and Rep. Rush Introduce Concurrent Resolution to Address Prison Reform and Changes to Exorbitant Prison Phone Rates

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 8, 2016
Contact:
Jeff Giertz (Booker), jeff_giertz@booker.senate.gov
Debra Johnson (Rush), debra.johnson@mail.house.gov

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and U.S. Representative Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.)introduced a Concurrent Resolution to address exorbitant prison phone rates between the imprisoned and their loved ones.

“Implementing fair and reasonable prison phone rates is the right thing to do and plain common sense. This resolution supports recent efforts by the FCC to protect those serving their time and their families from exorbitant and unfounded calling fees imposed on some of America’s most financially fragile households. These excessive fees are not only baseless attempts to profit off of vulnerable families, they undermine the financial security of those trying to stay in touch with a partner, parent, or child behind bars. In addition, excessive fees on inmate calls can pose a substantial barrier to successful reentry once individuals have paid their debt to society. That debt should not include paying excessive fees per minute to speak with your child, ” Sen. Booker said.

“For last decade, I have sought to end the ‘family divide,’ a term analogous to the ‘digital divide’ that exists with regard to unequal access to communication services between incarcerated members of our society and their loved ones,” said Rep. Rush. “I firmly believe that communication, along with the ability to express love toward family, is a fundamental need, and one’s humanity does not perish when they enter the prison system.”

Although this is an issue that affects families from all backgrounds (over 2.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison), more than 60 percent of incarcerated prisoners are African- or Latino-American. In addition, many prison offenders come from economically vulnerable communities where unreasonable prison phone rates severely harm and exploit prison populations.

Research proves that there is a significant decline in recidivism rates for inmates who communicate with family members while incarcerated compared to those who do not. Expensive phone call rates deter such communication and result in costly re-incarceration. Scores of states receive hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions from companies to land exclusive contracts to provide prison phone services without facing competition from other lower-cost providers; a possible reason for why prison phone call rates have skyrocketed. Bloomberg reports the lucrative market for prison phone services, which totals approximately $1.2 billion dollars in annual revenues, is currently dominated by two companies, Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies.

Ensuring that prison phone rates are adjusted to reasonable levels will not only increase affordability of service for families, but will also help keep families intact as much as possible while reducing recidivism.

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S.1880 Becomes Law!!

ADVOCATES APPLAUD NEW JERSEY BILL CAPPING PRISON AND JAIL PHONE RATES

For Immediate Release, August 31, 2016
Contact: Karina Wilkinson, NJAID, KarinaWilkinson@gmail.com
Serges Demefack, AFSC, 973-854-0401

Trenton, NJ – The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, and Latino Justice PRLDEF welcome the signing into law of New Jersey legislation to ensure fair and reasonable phone rates in jails and prisons. The legislation, S1880 caps interstate and intrastate rates at 11 cents per minute and international calls at 25 cents, and bans commissions, or kickbacks, on calls.

“New Jersey now leads the country in protecting incarcerated individuals and their families from predatory phone rates,” said Karina Wilkinson, a member of NJAID. “We are pleased the Legislature and Governor acted to place the needs of New Jersey families and the community as a whole over profits.”

Commissions, currently at 50% to 70% in some New Jersey jails, drive up costs for families with loved ones in jail. The signing of the bill comes as welcome news to families in the New Jersey counties that continue to charge high rates and accept commissions from out-of-state companies at the expense of New Jersey residents.

“My three children had to live without me while I was detained,” said Pauline Ndzie, who was held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Hudson County Jail for five months. “I usually couldn’t afford to call them more than once a week. It isn’t fair to keep children from talking to their mother because of the high cost of phone calls.”

The legislation significantly decreases phone rates for international calling, which is particularly important for immigrant detainees who often rely on communication with family and others abroad to gather evidence for their immigration proceedings. The three New Jersey jails that house immigrant detainees (Bergen, Essex and Hudson jails) charge from nearly $18 to $45 for a 15-minute international call.

Joanna E. Cuevas Ingram, an Associate Counsel with LatinoJustice PRLDEF observed, “This is a major step forward in helping to prevent predatory intrastate and international calling rates from falling disproportionately onto Latino families and communities. Local facilities should not be permitted to charge $45 for a 15-minute international call to allow people to stay in touch with their family and loved ones. This new legislation will help ensure that fair and reasonable standard calling rates are provided in every detention facility in New Jersey, a path that we hope other states will soon follow.”

While the state and counties tied to the state contract have already reduced rates to less than 4.5 cents per minute and ended commissions, at least three counties in New Jersey continue to charge high rates. It currently costs more than minimum wage for a resident in Cape May, Salem, or Passaic for some calls to loved ones in jail. Under the legislation, all in-state calls will go down from $3.75 to $1.65 in Cape May, Salem, and Passaic Counties. The bill also removes the incentive for counties to leave the state contract, since they would not longer be able to take commissions.

“I was detained for 2 years, the calls were very, very expensive,” said P.F., an immigrant who was detained by ICE in a New Jersey jail. “I spent a long time without talking to my family. One day I called New York for 4 minutes and it took $9 out of my telephone account. Another day 5 to 6 minutes cost me $13. I never understood how charges were calculated. The price was too high.”

Allowing families of incarcerated individuals to remain in contact is not only humane, it also benefits the community at large. Permitting incarcerated individuals to communicate with their families and maintain ties to the community reduces recidivism and facilitates reintegration into society upon release from jail or prison.

“Affordable phone rates keep families and communities strong by helping them stay connected. New Jersey is showing real leadership to protect vulnerable families by enacting this legislation,” said Professor Alina Das, of the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

“Making a basic phone call to a loved one is no longer a luxury for New Jersey immigrants in ICE custody, said Serges Demefack, End Detention and Deportation Project Coordinator
Immigrant Rights Program, of the American Friends Service Committee. “It is very disappointing when local governments benefit from the misfortune of people in detention. The new bill will bring much needed relief to immigrant detainees who are by law ineligible to receive legal assistance from the government.”

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, a project of the American Friends Service Committee, is a statewide coalition that advocates for immigrants in detention, educating the public, and organizing to eliminate detention. New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic is a leading institution in both local and national struggles for immigrant rights. LatinoJustice PRLDEF, originally established as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) in 1972, is one of the foremost national nonprofit civil rights legal defense and education funds working to advance, promote, and protect the legal rights of Latina/os throughout the nation. For information on NJAID and the NJ Phone Justice campaign, please visit www.njphonejustice.org.

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Advocates Disappointed that FCC Raises Rate Caps – Urge Governor Christie to Sign NJ Legislation Reducing Prison & Jail Phone Rates

ADVOCATES DISAPPOINTED WITH HIGHER FCC JAIL PHONE RATE CAPS
URGE GOVERNOR CHRISTIE TO SIGN STRONG NEW JERSEY LEGISLATION

For Immediate Release
August 4, 2016
Contact: Karina Wilkinson, karinawilkinson@gmail.com
Serges Demefack, 973-854-0401

Trenton, NJ – Today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed three to two a proposal that will raise rate caps for all calls from prisons, jails, and detention facilities. The vote comes less than a year after the FCC adopted comprehensive reforms of fees and rates in October 2015, which were partially stayed earlier this year due to a lawsuit filed by prison phone service providers. The FCC’s reconsideration of its Order will lead to earlier adoption of new higher rate caps intended to end exorbitant prison and jail phone rates.

The FCC’s actions make it clear that states have plenty of leeway to set fair and reasonable phone rates, as the New Jersey Legislature has attempted to do with S.1880, which awaits Governor Christie’s signature before it can become law. The legislation caps interstate and intrastate rates at 11 cents per minute and international calls at 25 cents, and bans commissions, or kickbacks, on calls currently at 50% to 70% in some New Jersey jails. Commissions drive up costs for families with loved ones in jail or prison.

“Governor Christie has the opportunity to sign strong legislation to bring much-needed relief to New Jersey families by capping prison and jail phone rates and banning kick-backs as high as 70%,” said Karina Wilkinson, a member of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID). “We urge Governor Christie to protect New Jerseyans from predatory prison phone service providers by signing S.1880 into law.”

The legislation would significantly decrease phone rates for international calling, which is particularly important for immigrant detainees who often rely on communication with family and others abroad to gather evidence for their immigration proceedings. The three New Jersey jails that house immigrant detainees (Bergen, Essex and Hudson jails) charge from nearly $18 to $45 for a 15-minute international call.

“Making a basic phone call to a loved one remains a luxury for New Jersey immigrants in ICE custody,” said Serges Demefack, of the American Friends Service Committee and NJAID. “It is simply wrong when local governments benefit from the misfortune of people in detention. The practice of government commissions on jail telephone contracts must end. It is immoral and unjust.”

The FCC’s October 2015 reforms capped rates at a maximum of 11 cents a minute for all state and federal facilities, and between 14 and 22 cents for local jails depending on the Average Daily Population (ADP). The FCC’s new caps are to be phased in over two years starting with implementation 90 days from publication in the Federal Register for prisons and 180 days for jails. The modified rate caps are as follows:

• 31 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails and detention centers with ADP up to 349;
• 21 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails and detention centers with ADP 350 to 999;
• 19 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails and detention centers with ADP over 1,000;
• 13 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls, in state or federal prisons.

Allowing families of incarcerated individuals to stay in touch is not only humane, it also benefits the community at large. Permitting incarcerated individuals to communicate with their families and maintain ties to the community reduces recidivism and facilitates reintegration into society upon release from jail or prison.

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees is a statewide coalition that advocates for immigrants in detention, educating the public, and organizing to eliminate detention. For information on NJAID and the NJ Phone Justice campaign, please visit www.njphonejustice.org.

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Prison Phone Bill Passes NJ Legislature! Heads to Governor’s Desk

Here is our press release on the passage of S1880. From tomorrow, Governor Christie will have 45 days to sign it! Please call him and ask him to sign S1880 into law! His number is: 609-292-6000

[Update, June 28: The NJ Legislature’s website is reporting the Assembly vote as 57 to 21.]

ADVOCATES APPLAUD NEW JERSEY BILL CAPPING PRISON AND JAIL PHONE RATES
AND CALL ON GOVERNOR CHRISTIE TO SIGN IT

For Immediate Release, June 27, 2016
Contact: Karina Wilkinson, NJAID, KarinaWilkinson@gmail.com,
Serges Demefack, AFSC, 973-854-0401

Trenton, NJ – The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, and Latino Justice PRLDEF welcome the passage of New Jersey legislation to ensure fair and reasonable phone rates in jails and prisons, and we urge Governor Christie to sign it into law. The legislation, S1880, which passed the Senate 35 to 2 and the Assembly 57 to 20, caps interstate and intrastate rates at 11 cents per minute and international calls at 25 cents, and bans commissions, or kickbacks, on calls.

“Senator Turner and Assemblyman Johnson’s legislation provides much-needed relief to incarcerated individuals and immigrant detainees held in New Jersey counties that continue to maintain unreasonable rates and commissions,” said Karina Wilkinson, a member of NJAID. “We call on Governor Christie to sign the legislation in order to prevent counties and the state from placing profits over the needs of New Jersey families and the community as a whole.”

Commissions, currently at 50% to 70% in some New Jersey jails, drive up costs for families with loved ones in jail. The passage of the bill comes as welcome news to families in the New Jersey counties that continue to charge high rates and accept commissions from out-of-state companies at the expense of New Jersey residents.

“My three children had to live without me while I was detained,” said Pauline Ndzie, who was held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Hudson County Jail for five months. “I usually couldn’t afford to call them more than once a week. It isn’t fair to keep children from talking to their mother because of the high cost of phone calls.”

The legislation significantly decreases phone rates for international calling, which is particularly important for immigrant detainees who often rely on communication with family and others abroad to gather evidence for their immigration proceedings. The three New Jersey jails that house immigrant detainees (Bergen, Essex and Hudson jails) charge from nearly $18 to $45 for a 15-minute international call.

Joanna E. Cuevas Ingram, an Associate Counsel with LatinoJustice PRLDEF observed, “If this bill becomes law, it would be a major step forward, and would help to prevent predatory intrastate and international calling rates from falling disproportionately onto African American and Latino families and communities. Local facilities should not be permitted to charge $45 for a 15-minute international call to allow people to stay in touch with their family and loved ones. If this bill becomes law, it would help to ensure that fair and reasonable standard calling rates are provided in every detention facility in New Jersey, leading the way for other states as well.”

While the state and counties tied to the state contract have already reduced rates to less than 4.5 cents per minute and ended commissions, at least three counties in New Jersey continue to charge high rates. It currently costs more than minimum wage for a resident in Cape May, Salem, or Passaic for some calls to loved ones in jail. Under the legislation, all in-state calls would go down from $2.25 to $1.65 in Cape May, Salem, and Passaic Counties. The bill also removes the incentive for counties to leave the state contract, since they would not longer be able to take commissions.

“I was detained for 2 years, the calls were very, very expensive,” said P.F., an immigrant who was detained by ICE in a New Jersey jail. “I spent a long time without talking to my family. One day I called New York for 4 minutes and it took $9 out of my telephone account. Another day 5 to 6 minutes cost me $13. I never understood how charges were calculated. The price was too high.”

Allowing families of incarcerated individuals to remain in contact is not only humane, it also benefits the community at large. Permitting incarcerated individuals to communicate with their families and maintain ties to the community reduces recidivism and facilitates reintegration into society upon release from jail or prison.

“Affordable phone rates keep families and communities strong by helping them stay connected. New Jersey is showing real leadership to protect vulnerable families through this legislation,” said Professor Alina Das, of the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

“Making a basic phone call to a loved one remains a luxury for New Jersey immigrants in ICE custody,” said Serges Demefack, End Detention and Deportation Project Coordinator Immigrant Rights Program, of the American Friends Service Committee. “It is very disappointing when local governments benefit from the misfortune of people in detention. The practice of government commission on jail telephone contracts must end. It is immoral and unjust. If adopted, the new bill has the great potential to bring much needed relief to immigrant detainees who are by law ineligible to receive legal assistance from the government.”

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, a project of the American Friends Service Committee, is a statewide coalition that advocates for immigrants in detention, educating the public, and organizing to eliminate detention. New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic is a leading institution in both local and national struggles for immigrant rights. LatinoJustice PRLDEF, originally established as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) in 1972, is one of the foremost national nonprofit civil rights legal defense and education funds working to advance, promote, and protect the legal rights of Latina/os throughout the nation. For information on NJAID and the NJ Phone Justice campaign, please visit www.njphonejustice.org.

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Senate Law & Public Safety Committee to Vote on Phone Rates Bill Monday – Rate Payer Counsel Sends Letter of Support

The Senate Law & Public Safety committee will vote on Monday on S.1880, a bill to ban commissions on prison and jail phone calls and cap domestic rates at 11 cents per minute and international rates at 25 cents per minute.

Rate Payer Counsel Stephanie Brand sent a letter of support to the committee members today, stating:

The lack of regulation over prison calling plans led to non-competitive, non-cost-based bidding resulting in an inequitable burden and expense on vulnerable telephone consumers. This bill will fill that gap and hopefully lead to more equitable pricing. As a result, we urge members of the committee to support legislation on Monday.

New FCC Rules Go Into Effect Today!

Surcharges will be banned in jails starting on June 20th, so the $2 fee in Passaic County jail and two other jails will be eliminated, bringing down the rate for a 15 minute call from $4.25 to $2.25 and providing relief for the few remaining families in New Jersey that are still paying excessive rates.

See the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice’s press release with a quote from Karina Wilkinson on behalf of NJAID here.

Here’s a good explanation of the new rules from Prison Policy Initiative’s Peter Wagner:

What Families Can Expect from the New FCC Rules

by Peter Wagner, March 17, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission’s historic October 2015 order expanding its regulations of the prison and jail telephone industry goes into effect today. It’s a little complicated because prisons and jails have different effective dates, and part of the FCC’s order has been stayed by the federal courts. And on March 16, the FCC issued a public notice — which if the companies stay true to form, they are likely to challenge in court — reminding the companies that in-state calls are also to be capped. Barring new rulings from the court, here is what the families of incarcerated people can expect.

For prisons, starting today:

…The abusive hidden fees that our report Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry found can easily double the price of a call are now capped:

Payment by phone or website: $3 (previously up to $10)
Payment via live operator: $5.95 (previously up to $10)
Paper bills: $2 (previously up to $3.49)
Markups and hidden fees embedded within Western Union and MoneyGram payments: $0 (previously up to $6.95)
Markups and hidden profits on mandatory taxes and regulatory fees: $0 (We’ve seen these markups and hidden profits on “mandatory” taxes be 25% of the cost of the call)
All other ancillary fees: $0. (There are many of these charges. Some of the most egregious ones are $10 fees for refunds, $2.50/month for “network infrastructure” and a 4% charge for “validation”.)

For jails, starting June 20, 2016:

…The caps on the abusive fees discussed above will go into effect for calls from jails on June 20th.

After the court’s partial stay on the FCC order is lifted:

Assuming that the federal court lifts its partial stay and the FCC’s October order goes fully into effect at a later date, families can expect to see the following results:

In prisons, the cost of a call will drop to $0.11 a minute.

In jails, the cost of a debit/prepaid call will fall to $0.14 to $0.22 a minute, depending on the size of the jail. (Traditional collect calls will initially be higher and then, over a two year period, fall to the $0.14-0.22 level.)
For both prisons and jails, the companies will be prohibited from defying the FCC’s rate caps by steering families to abusive “single call” products like Text2Connect™ and PayNow™ that charge $9.99-$14.99 for a single call.

The Court has not set a schedule for the case yet, so we do not know when the partial stay might be lifted.

International calling and advanced communication services

The FCC also sought comments on regulating international calling and advanced communications services like video visitation and email, so the FCC is likely considering regulations of those services as well. The comment period closed in January, and we do not know when the FCC will rule on those issues.