The New York Campaign for Telephone Justice

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Single-carrier collect call systems are the norm for telephone service in prisons across the United States. People in prison may only call collect, and loved ones who accept the calls must accept the terms dictated by the chosen phone company. At a time when prisoners are increasingly housed in facilities hundreds of miles away from their home communities, telephones become for many the only way to stay in touch; for most, this is an offer that cannot be refused. The New York Campaign for Telephone Justice thinks this isn’t just wrong, it’s illegal.

Typically, states receive kickback commissions from the phone companies who receive the contract, creating a situation in which there is no incentive to seek competitive bids. Unsurprisingly rates for such calls are well above market rates, as much as $6 per minute. The phone companies and prison officials justify the high prices by saying there is a need for added security measures. There is little evidence to justify this claim, especially since calls from all Federal prisons cost just 7¢ a minute. In any case, the records show that companies and states often make millions of dollars in profits from surcharges and inflated per-minute rates. In New York State, 57.5 percent of the profits – over $200 million since 1996 – are kicked back to the state in the form of commissions.

Meanwhile, the effect upon the loved ones of those who are incarcerated is profound. With inflated per-minute charges compounded by various surcharges, families often find themselves owing hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. Disproportionately, people in prison come from poor communities, and the burden of staying in touch falls heaviest on those with the least ability to pay. Phone companies recognize this: they reserve the right to cut off service without notice if they see extra activity on an account and decide those accepting the charges may not be able to pay.

Meanwhile, those who are allowed to accept calls face staggering bills and must often choose between basic necessities and the chance to speak with their loved ones. In the case of one campaign member, several years ago she became gravely ill. With her husband in prison, the need for psychological support and costly medical care pulled in opposite directions, and until she recovered, she often faced thousands of dollars in phone bills and doctor bills alike.

On a personal level, these contracts can be devastating. They are also unjustifiable as a matter of public policy. The profits returned to the states are treated as income – in New York, they are said to pay for basic prisoner services such as health care and release clothes – and this system is analogous to an unlegislated, regressive, and highly selective tax, under which specific individuals are asked to bear the financial burdens that are the proper responsibility of the state. By imposing such burdens on families of prisoners, the practice resembles a form of collective punishment. The community is made to suffer for the crimes of the individual.

The public policy argument against these contracts that affects everyone is that it undermines the purpose of the penal system. There is ample evidence to suggest that maintaining relationships with friends and family on the outside is a critical factor in preventing recidivism. By imposing such steep fees on those who seek to keep in touch with their loved ones in prison, these contracts undermine the ability of prisoners to weather the sustained crisis of prison life, and make the prospects for successful reintegration, once they have served their time, much dimmer.

For years, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has challenged these monopolistic contracts in the courts. While these efforts are proceeding, we recognized the need for a broader effort to restore justice to prison phone contracts, one that brings the issue to wider public attention, mobilizes opposition, and utilizes all possible avenues to end this practice.

In 2004, CCR partnered with the Families Rally for Emancipation & Empowerment (FREE!) and Prison Families of New York, Inc. to launch the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice. The objectives of the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice are to achieve more equitable rates for phone calls to and from prison, a high level of consumer choice within the prison telephone system, and fair service without unilateral preemptive cut-offs.

Through tireless public education, community organizing, advocacy and coalition building, we have elevated this issue in the public debate and succeeded in meeting many of these objectives. Responding to the demands of our campaign, New York's Governor Eliot Spitzer elminated the prison telephone commission in January 2007 and reduced the rates by over 50% in April 2007.

Additionally, in June 2007 the New York State Assembly and Senate passed the Family Connections bill, which enshrines Governor Spitzer's decision in law. Moving forward, prison telephone contracts in New York will no longer include a kickback to the state and must, instead, prioritize the lowest cost to the consumer.  Read the text of the Family Connections bill below.