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/

FCC Comment Period on Regulating High In-State Telephone Rates is Opening

Are you concerned about the harm that high in-state telephone rates cause to families with incarcerated or detained loved ones in NJ and across the US? The FCC just published their latest notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, seeking public comments by January 5, 2015.  See Media Action Grassroots Network national press release, with a quote from Karina Wilkinson here.

Learn more about the problems associated with high in-state telephone rates by checking out our Facts page.  Send in your comments online by filling out this form.

 

Petition Filed with the Board of Public Utilities

Today, a group of formerly incarcerated New Jersey residents, their families, and community organizations join together to file a petition with the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU), asking the Board to lower the cost of phone calls from prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in New Jersey. The petition comes in the wake of a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rule, implemented in February 2014, which caps the cost of out-of-state calls from correctional facilities but leaves in-state calls unregulated. The petition argues that “high phone rates lead to numerous negative effects for vulnerable families across the state,” and asks the BPU to ensure that phone companies cannot unfairly profit off people in New Jersey.

The final petition is available here, and the supporting documents are available here.

A press release is available here.

 

Rally & Press Conference for NJ Phone Justice! Join us in Trenton on April 30th at 1pm

Join us for a press conference & rally as we demand justice for vulnerable families burdened by the high cost of phone calls in New Jersey’s prisons and jails. We will be marking the historic filing of a NJ phone justice petition and calling upon the state to take action.  The press conference & rally will take place at 1:00pm on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, on the steps of the New Jersey Statehouse (125 W. State St, Trenton, NJ 08608). 

For more information and/or to let us know that you’ll be there, please contact us at zld207@nyu.edu or info@njphonejustice.org.

See you in Trenton!

Deadline to Submit Comments to FCC on Intrastate and International Rates is Friday, Dec. 13th!

When the FCC issued its recent order regulating interstate phone rates in jails and prisons across the country, it also asked communities to weigh in on whether it should also regulate intrastate (in-state) and international rates. Right now these in-state rates are higher in many states, including New Jersey, than the rates and caps the FCC has set for out-of-state calls!  These rates have a huge effect on families whose loved ones are incarcerated or detained in local facilities. Let’s make sure that the FCC extends its protections to all phone call rates affecting prisoners and detainees. The deadline for submitting comments is December 13th – so please let your voice be heard.

Sending your comments is easy – just go to the FCC website page for submitting comments and click on “Submit a Filing” (if you want to upload a Word document) or “Submit a Filing (Express)” (if you want to just type a brief set of comments in) and reference Proceeding Number 12-375.  Then just include your thoughts on why it’s important for the FCC to regulate intrastate and international rates. Some talking points might include:

  • How important communication is for maintaining family relationships, improving public safety and reducing recidivism, and ensuring fairness and accountability in the criminal justice system and the immigration system.
  • How expensive it is for families of prisoners and detainees in NJ to call them due to high rates, surcharges, and the 40-56% commissions (kickbacks) state and local facilities receive on profits that private telephone companies gets for these calls. Capping intrastate rates will encourage these facilities to lower all their rates and send a signal to the state and counties that commissions are no excuse for unaffordable, inflated phone rates.
  • How important international calls can be for immigrant detainees in particular, who often must gather evidence from their countries of origin in order to support their cases for life-saving relief from deportation like asylum and protection against the Convention Against Torture.
  • How these costs are currently being charged to the families who are least able to afford it, and are overwhelming people in poor communities and communities of color.
  • Any personal/professional experience you have with people affected by this issue: if you have been in a jail or prison, if you’ve had a family member or friend in jail or prison, if you work with or otherwise know people in your community affected by this issue–how have the high telephone rates affected you/the people you know? (Lead with this point if you have good stories or examples!)

Come to Our Next Community Forum on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 6pm!

On behalf of the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), we invite you to attend our upcoming forum on prison phone rates (details below). NJAID is a coalition of civic and religious organizations (individual participation is also welcome) whose goals include bringing attention to the plight of immigrant detainees in our state’s jails; working to improve the conditions in those institutions; and advocating for the reduction and elimination of the use of detention for immigrants.

The FCC recently released an order which dramatically lowers interstate prison phone rates. We will be presenting on this order and opening discussion on the various possible ways that we can get intrastate rates regulated similarly. We want to hear from community partners and directly affected persons, create partnerships for action to come, and build excitement about fighting for just rates.

The forum will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 20, from 6-7:30pm, at American Friends Service Committee, 89 Market St., Newark, NJ.

Please come and please spread the word! A flyer is available here.

NJ Advocates Applaud Today’s Vote by the FCC to Lower Prison Phone Rates

Historic Vote by FCC to Lower Prison and Jail Phone Rates

The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees applaud Chairwoman Clyburn and the Federal Communications Commission for taking a historic vote this morning to lower prison phone rates and fees. NJ Advocates for Immigrant Detainees and diverse criminal justice organizations joined with families of prisoners to petition the FCC to pass rules that make interstate inmate calling rates more affordable.

Today, the FCC voted 2-1 in favor of reforming the prison phone industry and ensuring that people who are incarcerated will be able to stay connected with their families, including an estimated 2.7 million children who rely on interstate phone calls to stay in touch with their parents.  The rule ensures a safe harbor rate of .12/minute for prepaid interstate calls and .14/min for collect interstate calls and imposes a rate cap of $.21/minute for debit and prepaid interstate calls and $.25/minute for collect interstate calls.  The FCC also determined that site commissions paid by prison phone companies to contracting government agencies (up to 70% of prison phone revenue) are not a cost of providing phone services and thus can not be recovered. The rule will be in effect 90 days after it is published in the federal register.

“Phone companies have repeatedly claimed without evidence that protecting consumers threatens profits and security,” said Steven Renderos, from the Media Action Grassroots Network. “Today the FCC showed that they were listening to the research that overwhelmingly demonstrates keeping families connected through prison bars builds stronger families, better communities and makes us all safer.”

The two to one vote will impact many immigrants held in New Jersey county jails whose families are out of state.   For example, Bergen County detains hundreds of immigrant detainees each year whose families are in New York and whose immigration cases are initiated by the New York Field Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Bergen County can house over 150 such detainees through an intergovernmental service agreement with ICE. The FCC rule will affect interstate telephone services for such detainees, along with detainees and inmates in Essex, Hudson and Monmouth County jails. Rates from the four county jails are around $15 for a 15 minute call to New York. At 21 cents per minute, a 15 minute call would cost $3.15.  It will also affect people held or incarcerated in county and state jails for criminal cases in NJ who make calls out of state. NJ profits by $3 to $6 million per year on prison phone calls by taking money from the families of those detained and imprisoned. There will be pressure to lower rates for calling within state and to eliminate commissions on those calls, too.

“The FCC order to cap phone rates will directly affect state prisoners and county inmates, as well as hundreds of immigrant detainees held in county jails in New Jersey by New York Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” said Karina Wilkinson, Co-Founder of the Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a member group of the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. “The state takes a 41% commission on prison phone calls and Bergen, Essex and Hudson county jails take commisstions of between 54% and 57%. The exhorbitant rates and fees adversely impact families that can least afford it.”

The reasons we support fair and just phone rates include:

  • Studies show that government has a vested interest in keeping inmates and their families connected helps prevent the cycle of repeat offenders — which prevents crime and saves communities money.
  • Current prison phone rates do not reflect the cost of service – 60 percent of costs go toward commissions for corporations and prison agencies.
  • Studies show that marketplace pricing does not offer competitive and fair choices for inmates and families.
  • More than 2.7 million kids in the United States have a parent in prison and rely on phone calls to provide stability, comfort and a sense of normalcy.

Members of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees:

• American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Immigrant Rights Program
• Casa de Esperanza
• Episcopal Immigration Network
• IRATE & First Friends
• Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry in NJ
• Middlesex County Coalition for Immigrant Rights
• Monmouth County Coalition for Immigrant Rights
• NJ Association on Correction
• NJ Forum for Human Rights
• Pax Christi NJ
• People’s Organization for Progress – Bergen County Branch
• Reformed Church of Highland Park
• Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill ESL
• Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair

Join Us at the Next Community Forum

Join us as we discuss how we can put an end to the high phone rates at Essex County Jail.

Where: St. James Church – Corner of Lafayette and Jefferson Streets, Newark, NJ

When: Thursday, August 8th, 5:30 – 7:00 pm

Can’t be there? Contact info@njphonejustice.org and we will keep you updated on developments!

Read Our Comments to the FCC, Our Letters to DHS and County Officials, and More!

Thank you to everyone who sent in comments to urge the FCC to cap the exorbitant interstate phone rates in prisons and jails!  Read our official comments to the FCC. Other individual comments from coalition members and allies are available on the FCC’s website.

But the FCC isn’t the only entity that can help the families of people in prison and jail stay connected with their loved ones.  In fact, we need action from other local, state, and federal agencies to put an end to kickbacks. Several states (including New York) have already ended kickbacks and lowered rates–but not New Jersey!

First, counties can act to ensure fair rates. Read our letter to Essex County, NJ and their letter refusing to be accountable on this issue.

Second, states can act to regulate or legislate fair rates.  Read the testimony of Karina Wilkinson at the NJ State Budget Hearings.

Third, other federal agencies can act, like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)–which has contracts with local counties and private entities to detain immigrants and has the power to prevent kickbacks on telephone services.  Read our formal request to DHS.

Now it’s time to pressure all of these entities to act. Want to get involved? Contact info@njphonejustice.org today.