The original contract had been under fire by several groups advocating for the rights of detainees.
“Last summer, I urged our Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders to review the important issue of inmate phone rates at the Bergen County Jail. I congratulate Chairman Steve Tanelli, and the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders for recognizing the importance of this issue and for working on a fair and affordable phone rates at our county jail,” Assemblyman Gordon Johnson told the Bergen Dispatch.
Last year, the State of New Jersey’s Department of Corrections eliminated a 41 percent commission from their phone contract, and reduced prison and jail phone rates to among the lowest in the nation, approximately 4.5 cents per minute. As of August 2015, 17 of 21 counties had opted into the state contract.
Four counties (Bergen, Cape May, Passaic and Salem) have continued to contract independently for Inmate Calling Service. Advocates for Immigrant Detainees, who pay the highest rates for international calls, say prices in those counties remain exorbitant and create a burden for those incarcerated and for their families.“We applaud Bergen County’s decision to join the state contract for calling service in the jail. It will provide much-needed relief to incarcerated individuals and their families in Bergen County,” said Sally Pillay, Director of First Friends of New Jersey and New York, a group that visits detainees in the Bergen County jail and a member of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. “The Bergen County Freeholders are placing the needs of the community as a whole over profits, and we commend them for it. We also urge them to negotiate fair rates for international calling, a service the immigrant detainees housed in the jail rely on.”
In Trenton, Legislation (A-4576/S-1771) sponsored by Bergen County Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson and Benjie Wimberly and State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) requiring all state and counties to contract with the lowest bidder for telephone service in state and county correctional facilities was pocket vetoed by Governor Christie in January.
“I understand we are all looking for ways to increase revenue, but this is not the way do it,” said Johnson (D-Bergen). “Charging such high rates puts an unfair burden on these families and makes it harder for them to stay in touch, which can make reintegration into the community that much harder for inmates once they get out. This bill ensures that families don’t have to choose between paying their bills and calling their relatives by prohibiting these facilities from charging unnecessarily high rates.”
The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC), the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and Latino Justice PRLDEF joined together to lobby Bergen County to join with the rest of the state and lower rates.
In a letter to the Bergen Freeholders, the advocacy groups urged Bergen County to join the state contract, which provides domestic calls for 4.384 cents with no fees or commissions. They pointed out that all together, it would cost more than minimum wage for a Bergen County resident to call their loved one in jail with the cost of a 15 minute phone call under the proposed Bergen Contract being $3.40.
In October the Federal Communications Commission voted to tamp down exorbitant phone rates charged to prison inmates.
Following the vote by the FCC, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said, “Providing communications services at fair and reasonable rates is critical to ensuring that incarcerated people maintain the supportive ties with their families that contribute to successful reentry into society. Extreme phone rates that exponentially exceed regular market rates seriously burden the recovery and rehabilitation process, and end up costing us all more in the long run.”
Today’s move signals long awaited relief for many inmates in the Bergen County Jail however immigration detainees will have to wait and see. The State Contract does not provide for international calling rates which under the proposed contract were as high as $19.80 per minute.
The Bergen County Jail has a capacity of 195 detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).