NJ Board of Public Utilities denies phone justice petition, leaving families with the burden of exorbitant rates in prisons and jails

On February 11, 2015, the NJ Board of Public Utilities denied our petition seeking fair phone rates in New Jersey Prisons and Jails.  Please read our press release here:

PRESS RELEASE

For Immediate Release

February 11, 2015
Contact: Alix Nguefack and Pauline Ndzie, New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, (973) 854-0401
Karina Wilkinson, New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, karinawilkinson@gmail.com
Scott Welfel, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, (973) 624-9400 ext. 20

Board of Public Utilities Denies Petition Seeking Fair Phone Rates in New Jersey Prisons and Jails
Petitioners Continue to Seek Relief for Suffering Families

Trenton – Today, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) denied a petition asking the Board to limit the cost of phone calls from prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in New Jersey. The New Jersey residents and organizations that filed this petition are disappointed by the decision, given the need for reform. Notwithstanding the denial of the petition, the Board still has an ongoing obligation to act to ensure that such rates are “just and reasonable,” and the petitioners are eager to work with the Board to support consideration of alternative actions.

New Jersey’s jails, which house people awaiting trial who cannot afford bail and immigrant detainees who have no right to attorneys, have the most exorbitant rates. For example, a fifteen-minute call from Bergen County Jail to another part of New Jersey can cost up to $7.50, and the same call from Mercer County Jail can cost $8.50. These rates affect the New Jersey families that are least able to afford them, while the counties take commissions between 50% to 70% from the phone companies’ huge profits. These commissions make it unlikely that counties will take action to reduce rates, making intervention by the BPU particularly necessary. Petitioners urge the BPU to independently initiate a rulemaking process that would determine the most effective way of dealing with this problem.

We know that phone companies can afford to provide much lower rates. In neighboring states New York and Pennsylvania, phone companies provide calling services to state prisons at rates of 4.8 cents and 5.9 cents, respectively. New Jersey’s failure to act immediately to reduce exorbitant rates to a comparable level continues to have devastating effects on New Jersey families.

“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.” High phone rates strain the ability of families and especially children to stay in touch with their loved ones who are incarcerated.

“The phone companies that operate in prisons and jails prey on New Jersey’s most vulnerable families, especially poor families and families of color,” said Craig Levine, Senior Counsel and Policy Director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Limiting the ability of incarcerated people to speak with their families only makes it more difficult for them to rejoin their communities and causes their innocent children to suffer. We are disappointed that the BPU has not stepped in to bring these costs down, but remain hopeful that although they chose not to act today the Board will take appropriate, essential regulatory action in the near future.”

“It is not fair that families in New York are paying less to talk to their loved ones than families in our state, whether their family member is incarcerated here in New Jersey or in New York,” said Karina Wilkinson of the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. “The BPU should have acted to ensure that New Jersey families pay fair rates, and while they didn’t do so today, they still have the opportunity to take action in the future.”

For a full copy of the petition, visit http://njphonejustice.org/petition-filed-with-the-board-of-public-utilities/

NJ Board of Public Utilities to vote on NJ Phone Justice Campaign Petition

The NJ Board of Public Utilities Commissioners will meet on Wednesday, February 11 at 10am in the State House Annex in Trenton, Room 11. At the meeting, they are expected to vote on the NJ Phone Justice Campaign petition. We will report back here on the result of the vote and whether the state will move ahead with much needed regulation to end the profiteering by counties and prison and jail phone service providers off of families that can least afford it.