FCC Votes To Cap All Prison And Jail Phone Rates! Relief Comes To New Jersey Families

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees

For Immediate Release

Contact: Sally Pillay, [email protected]

October 22, 2015

Federal Communications Commission Votes to Cap All Prison and Jail Phone Rates

Relief Comes to New Jersey Families

The New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID) applaud the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for taking a crucial step towards ensuring fair and reasonable phone rates in jails and prisons. Today, the FCC voted to adopt an order capping the exorbitant rates and fees charged by private phone companies and discouraging commission kickbacks to facilities, which drive up costs for families with loved ones in jail or prison. The order will come as welcome news to families in several New Jersey counties that continue to charge excessively high intrastate and international rates and accept commissions, or kickbacks, from out-of-state companies at the expense of New Jersey residents.

“The FCC order will provide much-needed relief to incarcerated individuals and immigrant detainees in New Jersey counties that continue to maintain unreasonable rates and commissions,” said Karina Wilkinson, a member of NJAID. “It will help prevent counties from placing profits over the needs of New Jersey families and the community as a whole.”

The FCC order sets hard caps on all phone rates in jails and prisons. The cap for state and federal prisons is 11 cents per minute, and the caps for county jails range from 14 to 22 cents per minute depending on the size of the facility. The order also limits unnecessary ancillary service fees, which can add nearly 40% to the cost of a phone call. As part of this new rule, the FCC strongly discourages commission payments from phone companies to facilities, which are anti-competitive profit-sharing arrangements that prey on incarcerated persons and their families. The FCC also issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on video visitation in jails, which may address the risk that counties will pursue another profit-seeking opportunity by replacing free in-person visits with video visitation for a fee, as at least one NJ county, Salem, already does.

These reforms will make a major difference for the estimated 2.7 million children who rely on jail and prison phone systems to stay in touch with an incarcerated parent. “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.”

While many states and localities have already taken positive steps and negotiated contracts with ICS providers at rates below the caps proposed in this FCC rule, there are at least four counties in New Jersey that illustrate the dire need for the new reforms. It currently costs more than minimum wage for a resident in Bergen County, Cape May, Salem, or Passaic for some calls to loved ones in jail. Under the proposed FCC rule, long distance 15-minute in-state calls will go down from $7.50 to $2.10 in Bergen County, and all in-state calls will go down from $4.25 to $3.30 in Cape May, from $4.25 to $2.40 in Salem, and from $4.25 to $2.10 in Passaic. The FCC proposal also significantly decreases phone rates for international calling, which is a particularly important service for immigrant detainees who often rely on communication with family and others abroad to gather evidence for their immigration proceedings.

As Bergen County considers a new phone contract for 21 cents per minute for domestic calls, well over the 14 cent cap approved by the FCC today, Greg Sullivan, a Bergen County resident, says “I am disappointed that Bergen County would seriously consider outrageously punitive telephone rates for occupants of Bergen County jail.” Mr. Sullivan, who has been visiting immigration detainees in New Jersey facilities since 2006, explained that in his visits, “the prohibitive cost of phone calls is a consistent complaint,” and that since a large portion of the jail population is poor, “this represents a severe and unjustified hardship.”

Allowing families of incarcerated individuals to remain in contact is not only the humane course of action, 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.

An immigrant from Senegal, who spent two-and-a-half years in detention at the Bergen County Jail, reports that the high cost of making calls prevented him from speaking to anyone on the outside for four months. He remembers that isolated time as being so terrible that he would talk to himself just to be able to get his frustrations out. Though he has been released from detention, he emphasizes that the few phone calls he had are what got him through fighting his asylum case. He explains, “If you can call somebody you can feel that person from the end of the line, and you can feel the love of that person. That’s mental support. And that is very important.”

For these compelling reasons, NJAID commends the FCC’s decision to set hard caps for all rates and discourage commissions. The FCC’s caps will serve as safeguards to encourage facilities to set affordable, cost-based rates. NJAID also supports the FCC’s plan to continue to monitor data on rates and fees to make further changes and adjustments in the future that reflect an evolving market. The action the FCC took today, and its commitment to continue working towards comprehensive ICS reform, will help ease the tremendous financial burden imposed on incarcerated individuals and their families.

New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees is a statewide coalition that advocates for immigrants in detention, educating the public, and organizing to eliminate detention. For information on NJAID and the NJ Phone Justice campaign, please visit www.njphonejustice.org.