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Pay or Be Silent: Families Survive the High Price of Prison Telephone Rates

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Issued October 2009 by the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice

Introduction

Starting in 1996 the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) contracted with MCI/Verizon to provide collect call service for people in prison and their loved ones in the outside world: their family, friends, advocates and attorneys.  DOCS awarded the monopoly contract to MCI/Verizon not because they provided the lowest price to consumers, but because the phone company provided the highest kickback to DOCS.

For over a decade, DOCS earned 57.5 percent of the profits from prison telephone calls as an unlegislated and illegal tax.  A tax they came out of the pockets of the disproportionately poor families and friends of people in prison.  Until 2007, when the contract was changed, families paid $3.00 to receive a call and 16 cents per minute, with surcharges common.  Those burdensome costs continue to reverberate today.

Coming together as the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, families and advocates educated, organized and built a coalition across New York State. They elevated the issue in the public debate, and in 2007 Governor Eliot Spitzer and the State Assembly responded to the campaign. Lawmakers eliminated the kickbacks and cut rates by over 50 percent.

In 2009, the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice conducted an informal  survey of prison families to determine the residual impact of the previous telephone rates.  While families may be happier with the rates today, what was the financial and personal impact of being overcharged for so long?

Summary of Findings

The survey found that families and friends who accepted calls from loved ones in prison incurred a significant financial burden.  The majority of respondents paid more than $100 per month for calls.  Over the 11 years that the contract was in place, an overwhelming number of families paid $2,500 or more, with some respondents reporting bills totaling more than $15,000.  

An alternative to paying the cost was staying silent.  Many respondents frequently went without communicating with parents, children, or spouses who were incarcerated.  Of children with parents who were incarcerated, a shocking number sometimes or often went without calling because of the cost.  The results were similar for other relatives.

In order to make calls to loved ones, many survey respondents went without paying other bills, without paying a mortgage, and, in several cases, without buying food.  Nearly all of the families who responded reported that  they were unable to save money because of the phone call costs.  Many reported higher credit card debt and lower retirement savings,   and there were repeated accounts of being forced into bankruptcy. The ability to afford health care and medical insurance was deeply affected by these costs as well.,.  

Testimony: the lived experience of high rates

One mother with a son in prison described the financial stress of the prison phone bill.  “We are still unable to buy groceries and purchase anything new. I learned how to go to the food pantries, churches, and free give-a-ways,” she said.

Another survey respondent with a brother in prison had to make sacrifices. “I chose to pay for these calls and not purchase new clothes or shoes.  I had to limit entertainment for my family, limit vacation activities, etc. to finance his phone calls.”

“It is my goddaughter who is incarcerated,” said an involved and stabilizing family member. “From nearly daily contact to a 20 minute, once a week call, made it difficult to give her guidance both as a godparent and as a surrogate parent. Calling more often would have posed a difficulty, moneywise.”

Important family updates went quiet because of the cost.  “I went through chemotherapy during this time and was unable to see or speak to my son as often as I needed to,” one mother said.  

One man in prison can call his wife, but “he has had very little to no contact with his sisters, niece, nephews, uncle, cousin or other family because their phones have always had blocks due to their inability to pay for collect calls.”

“In retrospect it seems ridiculous to have spent so much on telephone bills,” one 66-year old spouse reflects. “But at the time it was important to keep lines of communication open, to be supportive of my husband, to maintain contact. When I see how much I actually spent over the years, I can't believe I was able to do it.”

 

For more information on the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, click here. For more information on CCR's case, Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYSDOCS), click here.