Telephone lifeline from jail costly for family members

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CHICOPEE — Jennifer Thurston's family spends up to $50 a week on phone calls to stay in touch with her while she is in custody. It's a lot for a family struggling with poverty and poor health.

"My husband's on disability," said Thurston, an Adams woman serving time for embezzlement. "He doesn't have a lot of money."

Phone calls are sometimes the only comfort for families who live far from the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center, run by the Hampden County Sheriff's Department, where Thurston and other women from surrounding counties are held both before trial and while serving sentences.

But the calls are costly because they must be made through an outside company — much more costly than for people outside jails.

Calls at the jail cost 12 cents per minute. While this is one of the lowest rates in jails across the state, and 42 percent lower than the 21-cents-per-minute rate cap set by the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable, critics say the cost penalizes poor people.

"It is perverse to rack up [phone] charges for a vulnerable population," said Brian Highsmith, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center in Boston. "It's their only lifeline to the outside world."

Prisoners and their families pay the jail's phone company, Global Tel-Link Corp., in order to make and receive calls. The company then returns a percentage of that revenue back to the jail, which the jail uses to pay some of its costs, including security costs of call monitoring.

In Hampden County, the revenue pays for valuable programs and activities, says Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi. The revenue returned to the jail provides library services, education supplies, teachers and mentors, GED testing, culinary training and other programs. The department also uses the money to pay the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority to run a dedicated bus from downtown Springfield to the Ludlow men's jail, at an $118,000 yearly cost.

"Each inmate pays a small fee per individual call which then results in a pool of funds directed right back into inmate programs," Cocchi said in an email. The jail also gives inmates unlimited free phone calls to their attorneys, and five free calls.

But the expenses make families rush through phone calls.

"She has to [talk] a hundred miles an hour to get it all out, in case we get cut off," said Wahya Wolfpaw, of Worcester, while her daughter was in jail.

Global Tel-Link Corp. is one of two corrections phone companies that dominate the national $1.2 billion per year industry. It paid the Hampden County department $725,000 for phone calls to and from all its facilities between July 2016 and June 2017, according to records supplied by the department. Phone calls to and from the women's jail during that same period netted the department $110,000.

Opponents see the system as unethical and predatory. Companies are using jails and prisons as a profit center, they say, and shifting what should be governmental costs onto people who are poor and powerless.

More than eight states agree. New York, California and Michigan are among states that have reduced the cost of calls by outlawing or curbing revenue-sharing.

Around the country, lawsuits have been filed over excessive jail and prison phone costs. Activists and attorneys say the families of prisoners, most of them poor, should not be shouldering what is the responsibility of the state, and paying significantly more for phone calls than free citizens.

Highsmith and attorneys for Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts are among several groups representing four people in a class-action lawsuit against the Bristol County Sheriff, and Securus, the company that charges inmates 16 cents per minute, and $3.16 for the first minute, even for redials made after the first is disconnected.

Highsmith and other attorneys are pushing a consumer protection argument. They liken the setup to an illegal kickback scheme in which state institutions are indirectly extracting extra revenue by outsourcing with a private-sector company.

A Global Tel-Link representative declined to comment.

The practice will end altogether in New York City jails, after Mayor Bill de Blasio in August signed a bill to stop call charges that earn the city $5 million per year.

The Federal Communications Commission tried to cap the rates lower than the current 21 cents per minute for out-of-state calls, citing concerns about "excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls paid by some of society's most vulnerable people."

Global Tel-Link opposed the move.

When FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai was seated in 2017, the commission dropped its court efforts to fight Global Tel-Link's appeal.

The interim rate cap remains at 21 cents per minute for out-of-state calls. But for most calls within the state, there is no cap.

Peter Wagner, an attorney and executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative in Northampton, said sheriffs choose phone providers based on how much commission they'll get.

"This is a regressive tax," Wagner said. "Why do we charge the poorest families in the state to pay for what the government thinks is an essential service?"

Wagner's organization collects nationwide data from jails and prisons about this phone call commission structure.

The Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections, for instance, takes a 45 percent cut of profits earned by Securus, which has cornered most of this U.S. market, but charges inmates 20 cents per minute, and $3.20 for the first minute.

The Hampden County jails, though charging 12 cents per minute, take an even larger share. Global Tel-Link pays the department a commission of 70 percent.

"[The Hampden Sheriff] may advertise the low rate, but they could have used their negotiated rate to give a far lower rate to the families of Western Massachusetts [inmates]," Wagner said. "The 12 cents could be less than 4 cents. The jail could change this in five minutes."

Wagner said sheriffs should be asking state legislators for program money instead.

"Why didn't they convince the legislature to pay for the bus?" he asked. "They use the [money] to benefit projects they think are important rather than going to the legislature. If it's a social good, then the state should pay for it."

Wagner said Berkshire County families pay exorbitant phone costs, but those commissions don't help them with public transportation to the jail.

Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, has sponsored a bill to eliminate commissions to jails and prisons, to charge inmates the same rate for comparable residential service, and for phone contracts to be negotiated based on the lowest rate. Montigny did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and at 413-329-6871.


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