Senate Committee Approves Bill to Reduce Prison and Jail Phone Rates

Alix Nguefack from New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees and Scott Welfel from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice testified at today’s Senate Law & Public Safety Committee hearing on Senator Turner’s (LD-15) bill to reduce prison and jail phone rates, S.1771. As amended it would eliminate kick backs to the state and counties (though the state has voluntarily ended its 41% commission as of Feb 2014). The counties continue to rake in 50% to 70% in commissions on the back of incarcerated people including immigrant detainees.

It was voted out of committee to the Senate floor.

Senator Turner’s press release here.

Senator Turner

Senate Hearing in Trenton Thursday on Phone Rates Bill

The Senate Law & Public Safety Committee will be hearing a bill on reducing phone rates in NJ prisons and jails on Thursday at 10:30am. The bill, S.1771, introduced by Senator Turner (LD-15) will likely be amended to reflect the new state contract that will lower state prison phone rates to 4.4 cents by August 25th, and hopefully address the remaining problems with the exorbitant rates and commissions being charged in the county jails. The location is: Committee Room 10, 3rd Floor, State House Annex, Trenton, NJ. Join us to help encourage the committee to move a strong bill to the Senate floor!

NPR & Prison Legal News on NJ’s New Phone Contract Reducing Calls to Under 4.4 Cents Per Minute; Congresswoman Watson Coleman’s Response

WNYC and Prison Legal News covered the expected drop in New Jersey prison and jail phone rates to under 4.4 cents, with quotes from the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Listen to the WNYC report here and read it below, Prison Legal News article here, and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman’s response below.

Phone Rates in NJ Prisons Cut in Half
Friday, May 08, 2015

WNYC
By Sarah Gonzalez : Reporter, WNYC/NJPR

Making a 15 minute phone call from a state prison is New Jersey will soon costs inmates 66 cents — down from $1.95.

New Jersey Public Radio has reported that making the same call from a county jail can cost up to $8.50.

Papa Faye, a former inmate at Bergen County Jail said the high cost of making a phone call prevented him from speaking to anyone on the outside for four months.

“It was terrible,” Faye said. “I felt like talking to myself sometimes just to be able to get things out, get frustrations out.”

Currently 17 of the state’s 21 county jails use the state’s contract, according to the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees who have been advocating for lower phone rates. They say county correctional facilities opting to use the state’s contract will also have to use the new rate of 4.4 cents per minute.

“We welcome the state’s action to lower phone rates, which will allow people incarcerated or detained in New Jersey to talk to their loved ones for reasonable rates,” said Karina Wilkinson of NJAID. “For decades, prison and jail phone rates have burdened New Jersey families who can least afford it.”

The new rates go into effect by the first of August.

[Updated information provided to NJAID by the state Department of Corrections indicates the new rates must be in effect by August 25, 2015, rather than August 1, 2015]

Watson Coleman Supports Lower Rates for Prison Phone Calls

April 10, 2015 Press Release
For Immediate Release

Ewing, NJ (April 10, 2015) ― Today, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) issued the following statement after the New Jersey Department of Corrections confirmed a contract with the potential to lower prison and jail phone rates:

“Many families dealing with a loved one in prison or jail already face difficult circumstances, like smaller household budgets and the mental and emotional hardship of physical separation. The exorbitant costs associated with calls from New Jersey jails and prisons place an added, unfair, and unnecessary burden on these families. I’m encouraged by the potential for lower call rates, and I’m hopeful this will be outcome.

“I fought to address this issue in the General Assembly, and I’ve continued those efforts at the federal level. We need a prison system in New Jersey and nationwide that focuses on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Giving inmates the ability to stay in touch with their families is a critical element of improving the system.”

Earlier this year, Watson Coleman sent a letter commending the Federal Communications Commission for new efforts to regulate private companies that provide interstate telephone service for prison and jail inmates. A 2011 report by the Vera Institute of Justice suggests that incarcerated individuals who maintained supportive relationships with family members had better outcomes when they returned to their communities.

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New Contract for NJ, phone rates under 5 cents per minute coming soon!

As of Jan 2, NJ has lowered phone rates in state correctional facilities to 13 cents per minute. That rate will remain in effect during a transition period for a new contract that started on April 27, to lower the costs even further to less than 4.5 cents per minute! The transition period ends on August 25, 2015, as noted on the NJ Treasury website.

We are looking forward to fair and reasonable rates coming soon!

[updated April 27, 2015]

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.

PA Contracts for Low Phone Rates and Keeps Commission

A new contract between the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the phone company Securus lowers the rates for calls from state prisons to $0.059 per minute. Meanwhile, Securus will pay Pennsylvania a commission of 35%. This means that – despite what the companies have said – a low rate of under $0.06 per minute is enough for Securus to make profit for themselves and pay the state.

Our letter to the FCC about this important evidence in support of a low rate cap is here.

FCC Comment Period Deadline: Monday, Jan 12, 5pm; NJAID & NYU IRC Comments Filed

As the FCC Comment Period comes to a close on Monday, January 12 at 5pm, NJAID and NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic submitted the comments below, calling for a cap on intrastate prison and jail phone rates, a ban on commissions and ancillary fees. Our recent findings include outrageous international calling rates at the three NJ county jails that house immigrant detainees, including $45 for a 15 minute call at Hudson County jail. By contrast, Elizabeth Detention Center charges $2.25 for a 15 minute call to an international landline. Get the details and more in our comments below.

Final FCC Comment Docket 12-375 by NJAID and NYU IRC

Reply comments can be sent through January 27th.