Legislators Push to Make Phone Calls in New York’s Jails and Prisons Free

Incarcerated New Yorkers pay some of the steepest rates for phone calls in the country, as high as $9.95 for a single 15-minute call.

Rachel M. Cohen   ·   October 14, 2021
I was so stressed I would miss a call... I would sleep with the phone, just every minute, holding it like life support. | Eliot Phillips

Vivett Dukes made a point to talk by phone with her husband John at least once every day while he was in prison at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 30 miles north of New York City. “The goal was once in the morning, and once whenever else if we could,” she recalled. “I felt very alone with this. There aren’t a lot of safe places to talk about the true impact of incarceration on family connection and how it really tries to rip up love.”

Asked about the cost of the calls, Dukes began to cry. “It was very expensive,” she said amid tears. "At times I didn’t eat lunch, or I denied myself other things. The fees that I incurred were enough for me to take a second job.” Dukes said she tried to budget at least $200 a month.

A new legislative effort in New York aims to address the exorbitant costs of communicating with incarcerated people, costs that bear heavily on family members and particularly low-income women and people of color. The yet-to-be introduced legislation would aim to make not just phone calls but also email and video conferencing free, modeled off a bill Connecticut enacted earlier this year, the first state in the country to do so.

People incarcerated in New York pay some of the steepest rates for phone calls in the country. A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a national criminal justice reform group, found that New York had the 7th highest average cost for an in-state jail call in the nation.

How much New Yorkers pay depends on where they’re incarcerated. In 2007, the state passed legislation to drive down the cost of calls in state prisons, and in 2019, New York City became the nation’s first major city to assume paying the costs of jail calls. But neither action affected local jails in the 57 counties outside of New York City, where the average cost of calls in 2019 was $8.83—50 percent higher than the national average. In some jails, costs run as high as $9.95 for a 15-minute conversation.

Most of this money is collected by the counties, which negotiate lucrative kickbacks in contracts with phone providers. Just under two-thirds of revenue from the average jail call goes into counties’ coffers, according to research published this year by the Prison Policy Initiative. In 22 counties, that figure stood at at least 80 percent.

State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), who is leading the charge in his chamber to make calls free, told New York Focus that he expects towns and counties will resist efforts to end these kickbacks. “Whenever states do things that have fiscal impacts, there is always pushback by municipalities,” he said. “They’ll say we’re doing an ‘unfunded mandate.’ That’s just going to be a fight we expect to have.”

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a national group focused on profiteering in prisons, says she anticipates sheriffs mounting some opposition as well. In Massachusetts, where similar efforts to make calls free and eliminate commissions are underway, sheriffs have claimed that such measures could result in fewer prison programs and less safe communities.

New York Focus reached out to county executives and sheriffs in eight counties, each of which clawback a majority of call revenue—Albany, Erie, Cattaraugus, Cortland, Delaware, Monroe, Ontario, and Saratoga. Most did not return request for comment.

But Theordore Kusineirz Jr., the chair of the Board of Supervisors in Saratoga County, which takes 80 percent of jail call revenue, told New York Focus that he opposes the idea of making the communications free for the incarcerated. “The hard-working, taxpaying, law-abiding residents of Saratoga County should not have to cover the cost of phone calls for those who wish to disregard the rules of society,” he said.

Spokespeople for the county executives in Erie and Albany referred questions to their counties’ sheriffs, who, like the other sheriffs contacted for this article, did not respond to requests for comment. The New York State Sheriffs' Association also did not return a request for comment.

All Eyes on the State Budget

For the last few years, advocates and lawmakers have debated whether to push legislation to make phone calls free throughout jails and prisons or just in state prisons, which could be an easier fight politically. Epstein introduced several bills of varying scope last year, none of which received a committee vote.

This year, the coalition—which includes Epstein, State Senator Jamaal Bailey, and the advocacy organizations Worth Rises, Color of Change, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center—have decided to move forward with one comprehensive bill to make all prison and jail calls free.

With promising state revenue projections, Epstein is hopeful that this bill will find greater success in 2022. "The bill cost money and last year with Covid was a difficult fiscal year,” he said. “This year we're in a better position to move it forward."

The coalition plans to press Governor Kathy Hochul to include the idea in her executive budget proposal, due to be released in January, and then to pass a bill based on the budget during the next legislative session, which runs from January until June. Epstein says his office is still working on crunching the numbers for his proposal.

The governor has promised to give the idea a hearing. “Governor Hochul is committed to improving justice and safety in jails, and we will review the legislation,” spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hayes told New York Focus.

Some advocates, including Tylek, have raised concerns that Mike Keogh, the husband of Hochul’s new secretary, Karen Keogh, works for Bolton-St. Johns, a top lobbying firm in Albany that represents Securus, the prison telecom company that covers state prisons and New York City jails.

Securus initially lobbied against efforts to make prison phone calls free in Connecticut, but under pressure from Worth Rises, the private equity firm that owns Securus made the company stand down. This year, Securus spokesperson Jade Trombetta told New York Focus that “we have not and will not” lobby against any similar legislation in New York, adding that it is their company policy “to work with any funding model that allows us to provide quality services to the incarcerated and maintain the security technology needed to protect public safety.”

Melissa DeRosa, the former secretary of Governor Andrew Cuomo, also had ties to Bolton-St. Johns. DeRosa’s father was a top partner at the firm, and while the Cuomo administration insisted DeRosa recused herself from anything related to her father’s business, lobbying reports showed the company continued to have access to Cuomo’s inner circle, even when the governor was under investigation.

Rob Galbraith, a research analyst at LittleSis, a corporate watchdog group, told New York Focus that such conflicts of interests were routinely dismissed in Albany for years — which is why paying attention to ties between new executive branch officials and lobbying firms matters now. “The stock response under Cuomo was that it’s misogynistic to even pose the question,” Galbraith said. “But Kathy Hochul has a new mandate for transparency.”

Trombetta, the Securus spokesperson, said Mike Keogh has not worked with them directly. Crampton-Hays said that “recusals have been put in place to ensure that any New York State business relating to the Secretary’s spouse is delegated.”

GTL, another prominent prison telecoms company, covers about 85 percent of jails outside of New York City. GTL spokesperson Natasha Fleury did not say whether her company would support or oppose the legislative push in New York, but said it is “constantly evaluating ways to drive down rates across the country” and noted that it currently provides free phone services in San Francisco county jails. (Last year, San Francisco officials announced that rather than requiring families to pay for calls, the city will pay GTL a fixed monthly rate per phone device.)

As advocates, telecom companies, and government officials hash out the legislation, incarcerated people and their families will continue to foot the bill.

Laron Rogers, who has been incarcerated in New York for nearly a quarter-century, said that legislation to make prison calls free would particularly help incarcerated people communicate with children and the elderly.

“I know some guys [in prison] who have children [but] might not have a relationship with the child’s mother, or the child might live with someone who won’t put money on the phone account, so then it’s almost impossible for them to talk to their kids,” Rogers, who is currently at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, said. “And, you know, my uncle—he puts money on my grandmother’s line, because she doesn’t like the internet, she doesn’t like giving out her personal information. If you have elderly people, that’s a real barrier.”

Vivett said that free prison phone calls would have made a world of difference for her.

“I was so stressed I would miss a call from [my husband]. My blood pressure was up, my anxiety,” she said. “I would sleep with the phone, just every minute, holding it like life support.”

This article has been updated to clarify that Worth Rises pressured the private equity firm that owns Securus, rather than Securus itself, to make Securus retract its initial opposition to efforts to make prison phone calls in Connecticut.

Rachel M. Cohen is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC and a contributing writer to The Intercept.
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