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.

The Bergen Dispatch on Bergen County’s Resolution to Lower Phone Rates in County Jail

Read the following article from the Bergen Dispatch reporting the recent Bergen County Freeholders’ vote to lower phone rates in the county jail.

 

 

By: Paul Nichols
Wednesday, February 24, 2016

 

On Wednesday, the Bergen County Freeholders rejected a resolution authorizing a contract to Global Tel*Link Corporation to provide Inmate Telephone Services for the Inmates at the Bergen County Jail opting to go with rates for inmate phone calls governed by the State. 
 
The original contract had been under fire by several groups advocating for the rights of detainees.
 
“Last summer, I urged our Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders to review the important issue of inmate phone rates at the Bergen County Jail.  I congratulate Chairman Steve Tanelli, and the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders for recognizing the importance of this issue and for working on a fair and affordable phone rates at our county jail,” Assemblyman Gordon Johnson told the Bergen Dispatch.
 
Last year, the State of New Jersey’s Department of Corrections eliminated a 41 percent commission from their phone contract, and reduced prison and jail phone rates to among the lowest in the nation, approximately 4.5 cents per minute. As of August 2015, 17 of 21 counties had opted into the state contract.
 
Four counties (Bergen, Cape May, Passaic and Salem) have continued to contract independently for Inmate Calling Service. Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, who pay the highest rates for international calls, say prices in those counties remain exorbitant and create a burden for those incarcerated and for their families.“We applaud Bergen County’s decision to join the state contract for calling service in the jail. It will provide much-needed relief to incarcerated individuals and their families in Bergen County,” said Sally Pillay, Director of First Friends of New Jersey and New York, a group that visits detainees in the Bergen County jail and a member of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. “The Bergen County Freeholders are placing the needs of the community as a whole over profits, and we commend them for it.  We also urge them to negotiate fair rates for international calling, a service the immigrant detainees housed in the jail rely on.”
 
In Trenton, Legislation (A-4576/S-1771) sponsored by Bergen County Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson and Benjie Wimberly and State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) requiring all state and counties to contract with the lowest bidder for telephone service in state and county correctional facilities was pocket vetoed by Governor Christie in January.
 
“I understand we are all looking for ways to increase revenue, but this is not the way do it,” said Johnson (D-Bergen). “Charging such high rates puts an unfair burden on these families and makes it harder for them to stay in touch, which can make reintegration into the community that much harder for inmates once they get out. This bill ensures that families don’t have to choose between paying their bills and calling their relatives by prohibiting these facilities from charging unnecessarily high rates.”
 
The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC), the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and Latino Justice PRLDEF joined together to lobby Bergen County to join with the rest of the state and lower rates.
 
In a letter to the Bergen Freeholders, the advocacy groups urged Bergen County to join the state contract, which provides domestic calls for 4.384 cents with no fees or commissions. They pointed out that all together, it would cost more than minimum wage for a Bergen County resident to call their loved one in jail with the cost of a 15 minute phone call under the proposed Bergen Contract being $3.40.      
 
In October the Federal Communications Commission voted to tamp down exorbitant phone rates charged to prison inmates.
 
Following the vote by the FCC, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said, “Providing communications services at fair and reasonable rates is critical to ensuring that incarcerated people maintain the supportive ties with their families that contribute to successful reentry into society. Extreme phone rates that exponentially exceed regular market rates seriously burden the recovery and rehabilitation process, and end up costing us all more in the long run.”
 
Today’s move signals long awaited relief for many inmates in the Bergen County Jail however immigration detainees will have to wait and see. The State Contract does not provide for international calling rates which under the proposed contract were as high as $19.80 per minute.
 
The Bergen County Jail has a capacity of 195 detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Bergen County Freeholders Vote to Lower Phone Rates in County Jail

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees

For Immediate Release

February 25, 2016

Contact: Sally Pillay, pillaysally@gmail.com

Bergen County Freeholders Vote to Lower Phone Rates in the County Jail, Bringing Relief to Bergen County Families

 Yesterday, Bergen County Freeholders voted to reject a proposed Global Tel*Link contract that would have burdened people held in Bergen County Jail and their loved ones with exorbitant phone rates. Instead, Bergen County provided long-awaited relief to its residents by opting to join the contract negotiated by the State of New Jersey in 2014, which reduced jail phone rates to among the lowest in the nation and eliminated commission kickbacks to the facilities. Lowering jail phone rates helps keep families together, promotes stronger communities, and has been shown to lower recidivism rates.

“We applaud Bergen County’s decision to join the state contract for calling service in the jail. It will provide much-needed relief to incarcerated individuals and their families in Bergen County,” said Sally Pillay, Director of First Friends of New Jersey and New York, a group that visits detainees in the Bergen County jail and a member of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. “The Bergen County Freeholders are placing the needs of the community as a whole over profits, and we commend them for it.  We also urge them to negotiate fair rates for international calling, a service the immigrant detainees housed in the jail rely on.”

After the Federal Communications Commission capped interstate phone rates, the State of New Jersey eliminated its 41 percent commission and in August entered into a new contract with Global Tel*Link that brought rates down to approximately 4.5 cents per minute. As of August, 17 out of 21 New Jersey counties were tied to the state contract. Bergen, Passaic, Cape May, and Salem counties were the only counties that contracted independently for phone services.

Bergen County’s phone rates and commissions under its independent contract were prohibitively expensive. For example, a fifteen minute collect call to a different area code cost $7.50 for a collect call and the facility was receiving a 60 percent commission on the phone company’s revenues. The new independent contract Bergen County was considering for implementation would have increased commissions to 65 percent and set a flat rate of 21 cents per minute for domestic calling, approximately four times the rate under the state contract.

While Bergen County has taken a crucial step towards fairer phone rates by joining the state contract, the New Jersey contract does not provide for international calling, a service that is particularly important in facilities like Bergen County that hold immigrant detainees. The current cost of a fifteen minute international call in Bergen County is excessively high, approximately $19.80.

Bergen County holds some 200 immigrant detainees in Immigration and Custom Enforcement custody, many of whom are unrepresented by counsel. Those individuals are particularly vulnerable to exorbitant international rates, as they need to call internationally not only to stay in touch with family but to prepare their immigration cases and plan for possible deportation. Bergen County must continue the reforms made yesterday by providing international calling services that are cost-based and reasonable.

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A4576/S1771 Passes the NJ Legislature, Heads to the Governor’s Desk – NJAID Press Release

A4576/S1771 passed yesterday in the NJ legislature. The vote was 47-22 with 1 abstention in the Assembly and 36-0 in the Senate! It now heads to the Governor’s desk, and he has 7 days to sign it into law. NJAID’s press release is here. Please call Governor Christie’s office, 609 292-6000, and ask him to sign A4576 into law! It’s time to bring fair and reasonable prison and jail phone rates to New Jersey.

Note: New Jersey’s Rate Payer Counsel Stefanie Brand sent the following letter in support of the bill to the entire legislature:
Rate Payer Counsel Letter in Support of S1771 & A4576.

Calls Needed – S1771/A4576 both up for floor votes on Monday. Call Your Legislators and Ask for a Yes Vote!

We are very close to getting phone rates legislation! Both S1771 and A4576 will be posted for floor votes on Monday, the last day of the legislative session.

Call your legislators Monday between 9am and noon and tell them to vote to reduce prison and jail phone rates! We need Yes votes on S1771/A4576!

You can find your legislators here.