Telephone justice

Kudos to the folks at the Center for Constitutional Rights and their allies in the struggle to end exploitative telephone contracts in New York state prisons. The problem is not restricted to New York, but that’s where the Telephone Justice coalition has been focusing its efforts.

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 – were kicked back to the state in the form of commissions.

So it turns out that crime does pay, only it’s the state and telephone companies that are getting paid, not the perpetrator or victim of the crime. The joys of being the middleman. Is it possible that schemes like this contribute to state legislatures’ ongoing practice of finding new ways to put and keep people in jail, from “three strikes” laws to mandatory minimums for victimless crimes? State governments like to find ways to generate revenue without imposing general taxes, and ripping money off from the families of inmates is probably a good way to do so without incurring the wrath of most voters. That’s just one of the arguments made by lawyers at the CCR who helped to end this practice.

The contracts 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.

Given the class divide in who goes to jail, and the divide in who tends to vote, relatively few voters are from families with someone in jail. So the people who are being squeezed have no clout with the lawmakers. Well, in New York they’ve managed to earn some clout through the efforts of the Telephone Justice coalition, which was launched by the CCR.

Since 1999, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has been fighting on the ground and in the courts to end the exploitative telephone contract between New York State and MCI/Verizon which charged family members 630% more for collect phone calls from their loved ones in prison than the average consumer. Single-carrier collect call systems are the norm for telephone service in prisons across the United States. Prisoners 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.

This year, after three years of tireless work, we won. [cont’d]

Next step: take the campaign to all the other states. (See the campaign’s endorsers page for links to some other telephone justice efforts around the country.