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.

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.

A4576 Posted for a Vote in the Assembly Jan 11th at 1pm – Calls Still Needed to Senate President Sweeney

A4576 has been posted for a vote in the Assembly on January 11th at 1pm!

Please continue to call NJ Senate President Sweeney and urge him to post the prison and jail phone rates bill for floor votes by January 11, 2016. This will be the last floor vote before the new legislative session.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (856) 251-9801 (West Deptford)
(856) 339-0808 (Salem)

Here’s a sample script:

I am calling to ask Senator Sweeney to post S1771 for a floor vote. It is a bill to reduce phone rates for people incarcerated in New Jersey, including immigrant detainees. Studies have shown that maintaining relationships outside of prison helps with re-entry. Also, detainees need reasonable phone rates, not only to stay in touch with their loved ones, but to help prepare their immigration cases. Government and private prison companies should not be profiting off of those who can least afford it.

Calls of support for the bill can go to Senator Turner’s office as well:
(609) 323-7239

Our fact sheet on the bill is here.

Bill sponsors and status:
S1771 is sponsored by Senator Turner and co-sponsored by Senator Weinberg and passed the Senate Law & Public Safety committee unanimously in June 2015 and passed the Senate Budget committee in December.
A4576 is sponsored by Gordon Johnson and Benjie Wimberly and passed the Assembly Appropriations committee in December.

Calls Needed to Pass Phone Rates Bill, S1771/A4576

Please help call NJ Assembly and Senate leaders and urge them to post the prison and jail phone rates bill for floor votes by January 11, 2016. This will be the last floor vote before the new legislative session.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (856) 251-9801 (West Deptford) (856) 339-0808 (Salem)
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (201) 770-1303 (Secaucus)

Here’s a sample script:

I am calling to ask [Senator Sweeney/Assembly Speaker Prieto] to post S1771/A4576 for a floor vote. It is a bill to reduce phone rates for people incarcerated in New Jersey, including immigrant detainees. Studies have shown that maintaining relationships outside of prison helps with re-entry. Also, detainees need reasonable phone rates, not only to stay in touch with their loved ones, but to help prepare their immigration cases. Government and private prison companies should not be profiting off of those who can least afford it.

Bill sponsors and status:
S1771 is sponsored by Senator Turner and co-sponsored by Senator Weinberg and passed the Senate Law & Public Safety committee unanimously in June 2015 and passed the Senate Budget committee in December.
A4576 is sponsored by Gordon Johnson and Benjie Wimberley and passed the Assembly Appropriations committee in December.

Calls Needed for Assembly Hearing on Phone Justice Bill

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson’s phone justice bill is being heard and hopefully voted on, on Thursday. Please call one member of the Assembly Appropriations committee listed below, as well as the chair, if not all of those listed below.

After identifying yourself, you can tell them:

Please pass A.4576, a bill to reduce phone rates for people incarcerated in New Jersey, including immigrant detainees. Studies have shown that maintaining relationships outside of prison helps with re-entry. Also, detainees need reasonable phone rates, not only to stay in touch with their loved ones, but to help prepare their immigration cases. Government should not be balancing budgets on the backs of people who can least afford it.

For the committee members in Bergen and Passaic, please add the sentence:
The bill is co-sponsored by Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (Bergen) and Benjie Wimberley (Passaic).

For the chair, please thank him for posting the bill for a vote.

Burzichelli, John J. – Chair [Salem, Salem County]
856) 251-9801 (West Deptford)
(856) 339-0808 (Salem)
Spencer, L. Grace – Vice-Chair [Newark, Essex]
(973) 624-1730
Conaway, Herb [Delran, Burlington]
(856) 461-3997
Lagana, Joseph A. [Bergenfeld, Bergen]
(201) 576-9199 (Paramus)
(201) 374-2205 (Bergenfield)
Lampitt, Pamela R. [Voorhees, Camden]
(856) 435-1247
Schaer, Gary S. [Passaic, Passaic County]
(973) 249-3665

New Exorbitant Bergen Jail Phone Contract Delayed

Bergen County Freeholders have heard from advocates concerning Bergen County Sheriff Saudino’s proposed new contract with high rates, commissions and fees in a series of letters from the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, the New York School of Law Immigrants Rights Clinic, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Quotes from the most recent letter are in the Bergen Dispatch article
Groups Say Bergen County Jail Phone Contract Gouges Inmates on Excessive Charges

According to groups advocating for the rights of detainees the phone service contract under consideration by Bergen County stands in marked contrast to the new state contract in New Jersey. Under the proposed contract the cost of a 15 minute call from Bergen County Jail will be over five times the cost of a similar call from any state facility and county jail tied to the state contract.

In a letter to the Bergen County Freeholders the group urged the Board to reject the proposed contract saying “these high rates would place a particular burden on Bergen County residents who have family members in Bergen County Jail – a burden that is not experienced by similarly situated families in other counties that have opted into the state contract.”

The letter … asks the Freeholder Board to reject the proposed contract and either opt into the recent State of New Jersey contract or re-issue a bid that matches those rates “with no commissions or fees at the expense of vulnerable families.”

And quotes from Greg Sullivan of First Friends of NY/NJ:

Greg Sullivan, a concerned resident of Bergen County who has been visiting detainees in New Jersey facilities since 2006, stated that he is “disappointed that Bergen County would seriously consider outrageously punitive telephone rates for occupants of Bergen County.” He explained that in his visits with detainees, “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.” Mr. Sullivan was shocked that Bergen County would consider this proposed contract when there is evidence showing that its rates would result in a cost of $3.50 for a fifteen minute call, which is 15 times the cost of that same call under the state contract.

This week, news came of the outline of the Federal Communication Commission’s new rule that will set caps for all prison and jail calls and reduce or eliminate fees.

At their October 22nd meeting, the FCC will vote on new rules recently announced. It is expected there will be a cap of 14 cents per minute on large jails (over 1,000, which Bergen is). That would, in any case, invalidate the rate of 21 cents that the Sheriff was asking for, so a new rate will have to be negotiated.