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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FCC Votes To Cap All Prison And Jail Phone Rates! Relief Comes To New Jersey Families

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees

For Immediate Release

Contact: Sally Pillay, pillaysally@gmail.com

October 22, 2015

Federal Communications Commission Votes to Cap All Prison and Jail Phone Rates

Relief Comes to New Jersey Families

The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID) applaud the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for taking a crucial step towards ensuring fair and reasonable phone rates in jails and prisons. Today, the FCC voted to adopt an order capping the exorbitant rates and fees charged by private phone companies and discouraging commission kickbacks to facilities, which drive up costs for families with loved ones in jail or prison. The order will come as welcome news to families in several New Jersey counties that continue to charge excessively high intrastate and international rates and accept commissions, or kickbacks, from out-of-state companies at the expense of New Jersey residents.

“The FCC order will provide much-needed relief to incarcerated individuals and immigrant detainees in New Jersey counties that continue to maintain unreasonable rates and commissions,” said Karina Wilkinson, a member of NJAID. “It will help prevent counties from placing profits over the needs of New Jersey families and the community as a whole.”

The FCC order sets hard caps on all phone rates in jails and prisons. The cap for state and federal prisons is 11 cents per minute, and the caps for county jails range from 14 to 22 cents per minute depending on the size of the facility. The order also limits unnecessary ancillary service fees, which can add nearly 40% to the cost of a phone call. As part of this new rule, the FCC strongly discourages commission payments from phone companies to facilities, which are anti-competitive profit-sharing arrangements that prey on incarcerated persons and their families. The FCC also issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on video visitation in jails, which may address the risk that counties will pursue another profit-seeking opportunity by replacing free in-person visits with video visitation for a fee, as at least one NJ county, Salem, already does.

These reforms will make a major difference for the estimated 2.7 million children who rely on jail and prison phone systems to stay in touch with an incarcerated parent. “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.”

While many states and localities have already taken positive steps and negotiated contracts with ICS providers at rates below the caps proposed in this FCC rule, there are at least four counties in New Jersey that illustrate the dire need for the new reforms. It currently costs more than minimum wage for a resident in Bergen County, Cape May, Salem, or Passaic for some calls to loved ones in jail. Under the proposed FCC rule, long distance 15-minute in-state calls will go down from $7.50 to $2.10 in Bergen County, and all in-state calls will go down from $4.25 to $3.30 in Cape May, from $4.25 to $2.40 in Salem, and from $4.25 to $2.10 in Passaic. The FCC proposal also significantly decreases phone rates for international calling, which is a particularly important service for immigrant detainees who often rely on communication with family and others abroad to gather evidence for their immigration proceedings.

As Bergen County considers a new phone contract for 21 cents per minute for domestic calls, well over the 14 cent cap approved by the FCC today, Greg Sullivan, a Bergen County resident, says “I am disappointed that Bergen County would seriously consider outrageously punitive telephone rates for occupants of Bergen County jail.” Mr. Sullivan, who has been visiting immigration detainees in New Jersey facilities since 2006, explained that in his visits, “the prohibitive cost of phone calls is a consistent complaint,” and that since a large portion of the jail population is poor, “this represents a severe and unjustified hardship.”

Allowing families of incarcerated individuals to remain in contact is not only the humane course of action, 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.

An immigrant from Senegal, who spent two-and-a-half years in detention at the Bergen County Jail, reports that the high cost of making calls prevented him from speaking to anyone on the outside for four months. He remembers that isolated time as being so terrible that he would talk to himself just to be able to get his frustrations out. Though he has been released from detention, he emphasizes that the few phone calls he had are what got him through fighting his asylum case. He explains, “If you can call somebody you can feel that person from the end of the line, and you can feel the love of that person. That’s mental support. And that is very important.”

For these compelling reasons, NJAID commends the FCC’s decision to set hard caps for all rates and discourage commissions. The FCC’s caps will serve as safeguards to encourage facilities to set affordable, cost-based rates. NJAID also supports the FCC’s plan to continue to monitor data on rates and fees to make further changes and adjustments in the future that reflect an evolving market. The action the FCC took today, and its commitment to continue working towards comprehensive ICS reform, will help ease the tremendous financial burden imposed on incarcerated individuals and their families.

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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Fifteen U.S. Senators Write to FCC Supporting Effort to Cap Jail Phone Rates

U.S. Senator Cory A. Booker (D-NJ), along with fourteen other U.S. Senators, wrote a letter to the FCC commending the Commission’s proposed rule to cap intrastate prison and jail phone rates. The Senators also expressed support for discouraging commissions from phone companies to facilities, highlighting the social costs they create.

Joining Senator Booker on the letter are Senators Sanders (I-VT), Leahy (D-VT), Durbin (D-IL), Blumenthal (D-CT), Markey (D-Mass.), Casey (D-PA), Heinrich (D-NM), Brown (D-OH), Franken (D-MN), Coons (D-DE), Whitehouse (D-RI), Wyden (D-OR), Menendez (D-NJ), and Peters (D-MI).

Read the full letter here, and Sen. Booker’s press release here.

Read Our Comments to the FCC on Proposed Rule to Cap Intrastate Phone Rates In Prisons and Jails

Next week, on October 22, the FCC will vote on a proposed rule that will provide much-needed relief to detainees and their families by capping intrastate phone rates in jails and prisons. We support the FCC’s efforts to address prohibitively expensive intrastate calling rates, but encourage the FCC to set lower caps and further regulate the practice of facilities collecting commissions on the revenue generated from jail phone systems.

Our comments to the FCC include the following recommendations:

Lower caps. We urge the FCC to set lower caps, and at minimum, emphasize and encourage states that have already negotiated more affordable rates to keep those rates. The rates ultimately proposed by the Commission will be considered an adequate standard, especially by counties that will have to lower their rates to be in compliance. In all likelihood, those localities will set rates as high as the cap. However, the New Jersey rates show that lower caps would be feasible for the jails and service providers, while granting greater relief to people held in the facilities and their families. Though the current FCC proposed rates should be considered a safeguard to encourage the most affordable rates, actually setting lower caps would compel counties, who otherwise would not be motivated to do so, to negotiate for the lower, feasible rates.

Commissions should be altogether banned. The FCC’s proposal can go further in providing relief for New Jersey families and others across the country by banning commissions. Phone companies pay millions of dollars in commissions to win contracts. This inevitably drives up the cost of phone calls as the companies then charge fees to pass on the price of commissions to consumers. An outright ban on commissions would remove the profit motive from re-negotiating higher rates. Jails and phone companies argue that the fees are legal and are used to pay a range of expenses for jails and prisons, as well as local governments. However, the vulnerable families of people held in jails should not be required to shoulder such expenses. The Commission has the statutory authority to ban commissions altogether, pursuant to sections 201(b) and 276 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. At a minimum, the FCC should ensure that states and localities set rates that are cost-based, so that commissions may not be considered when negotiating the rate for consumers, even if that means that the cost-based rates falls well below the applicable rate cap.

Read our comments to the FCC here.

These comments were submitted by the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

FCC Commissioner and Senator Booker Call Attention to the Injustices of High Phone Rates In Jails

Today, the Huffington Post featured an article by FCC Commissioner Clyburn and U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaking out against the injustice of charging incarcerated individuals and detainees exorbitant rates for phone calls. The article also stresses the perverse incentives created by allowing facilities to collect commissions on the phone providers’ profits from the calls. Read the full article here.