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Phone Calls From New York City Jails Will Soon Be Free

NEW YORK — People who end up in jail in New York City will now be able to use the phones there for free, after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law on Monday that will eliminate the charge.

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Zoe Greenberg
, New York Times

NEW YORK — People who end up in jail in New York City will now be able to use the phones there for free, after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law on Monday that will eliminate the charge.

The city had been collecting about $5 million per year from calls made by incarcerated people and their families.

The billion-dollar prison phone industry has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years, and the move by New York City is part of a nationwide push from prison-rights groups, public defenders, and the families of those who are incarcerated to limit private companies from profiting off incarceration. New York is the first major city in the nation to make phone calls free.

“Unfortunately, the city has been profiting from some of the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers for years,” Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker and sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “Thankfully, that is now going to stop.”

Prison-rights groups say making the calls free is fundamentally about fairness. About three quarters of people in the city’s jails have not been convicted of a crime and are there awaiting trial. Regardless of their status, people at the jail are required to pay fees to call family or lawyers on the outside.

Currently, calls from Rikers Island cost 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute to local numbers. There are 26,000 calls from the city’s jails every day that generate more than $20,000 in daily revenue, according to an analysis by the Corrections Accountability Project, which advocated for the bill. The Department of Correction already provides free phone calls in certain circumstances: Indigent people could make three free phone calls per week, and sentenced inmates could make two per week.

But when the law goes into effect in 270 days, all calls from jail will be free. Securus, the private company that manages phones in the city’s jails, makes about $2.5 million annually. The city will still likely pay a private company that amount.

“People who are incarcerated, and especially people who are incarcerated pretrial without conviction, should be able to contact lifelines without cost,” said Bianca Tylek, the director of the Corrections Accountability Project. She added that the law is a “game-changer” in the country.

The correction officers’ union is not happy about the change.

“Now the gangs will definitely be able to continue to run their operations from inside the jails,” said Elias Husamudeen, the president of the correction officers’ union. “They will definitely be able to continue to communicate free of charge with the other members of their gangs who may not be in jail.

“This is just one more nail in the coffin of creating safer jails, to be honest with you,” he added.

The high cost of phone calls behind bars was the subject of a federal investigation under the Obama administration. The Federal Communications Commission focused particularly on the commissions that cities and states received from prison phone providers in exchange for exclusive contracts. A 2013 analysis by the FCC noted that the commissions “have caused inmates and their friends and families to subsidize everything from inmate welfare to salaries and benefits, states’ general revenue funds, and personnel training.”

The Obama administration capped the cost of prison phone calls in 2015, but last year a federal court struck down the capped rates, and the Trump administration elected not to defend them.

People in the city’s jails use the phones to speak to family members and their lawyers. Research has shown that people in prison who maintain contact with their families and report positive relationships overall are less likely to be reincarcerated.

Lawrence Bartley, a program assistant with the Corrections Accountability Project who pushed for the bill to pass, saw how important the phones were firsthand. He was released from state prison 90 days ago, after spending 27 years behind bars. He said his family spent thousands of dollars on phone calls to stay in touch with him.

“It cost us a lot of money to call home, for Christmas, for my kids’ birthdays, helping them out, for moral support, being a father, to help them make decisions,” he said.

When he was first imprisoned, at age 17, he used the phone to talk with his high school sweetheart. He ended up marrying her, and they had two children together.

“I spent a lot of time just dreaming about the moment to get on the call with her,” he said. “Without her, I don’t know if I would have ever made it home.”

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