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.

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