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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