New York; Jan. 7, 2005 – When authorities first sent her husband to prison more than ten years ago, Rosina thought nothing could be worse than the high concrete walls and the hundreds of miles that separated her from her closest relative. She never anticipated that it would be the phone company that could ultimately keep them apart.
With the voice of a plucky, middle-aged woman, Rosina is reluctant to say that her problem is anything but a consumer issue. "Iâ€™m not about that touchy-feely stuff," she said.
Nevertheless, families of New York inmates say, the state has been imposing an unlegislated "backdoor tax" on their phone calls, which keeps loved ones out of touch. The state-level contract for the Inmate Call Home Program, says its detractors, allows the single carrier, MCI, to charge exorbitant prices for inmate-generated collect calls in exchange for a lucrative profit-sharing agreement that kicks back millions of dollars to the state.
But MCI and state prison officials insist that their contract is fair and resembles other prison phone contracts across the country. According to an August 2003 NY Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) press release, since most of the stateâ€™s profit from the phone plan goes towards bolstering spending on inmate health care, the question is really a matter of balancing inmate privileges and public tax dollars.
"This is an unlegislated tax to pay for healthcare that is supposed to be paid for by the state," said Annette Dickerson, statewide coordinator for the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, in an interview with The NewStandard. The Campaign for Telephone Justice is a coalition formed in October 2004 by the Center for Constructional Rights (CCR), the Fifth Avenue Committeeâ€™s Prison Families Community Forum and Prison Families of New York Inc.
The point of contention for the lawsuit is not merely the rates of the exclusive phone contract, but the 57.5 percent "overcharge" above all costs and profit gleaned by MCI that New York State claims for itself.
But unfortunately, said Dickerson, the exorbitant phone rates are far from rare.
Indeed, MCI spokesperson Natasha Haubold said, compensation for housing a payphone is an industry standard, and MCIâ€™s rates are comparable to other telephone companies that can offer prison phone services.
Besides, "you cannot compare an inmate-initiated call to a call from outside the system," Haubold said.
Haubold explained that the higher charges pay for added features like additional staff to monitor and record calls, multilingual operators and technology to block inmates from contacting victims or witnesses of their crimes. Each inmate is given a pin number through which they can dial the pre-approved telephone numbers of family or friends.
But under the current single-carrier arrangement, inmates can only call out collect and prisonersâ€™ families can only receive inmate-generated collect telephone calls using MCI at the stateâ€™s negotiated rates, leaving them little choice as consumers.
The point of contention for the lawsuit, notes attorney Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is not merely the rates of the exclusive phone contract, but the 57.5 percent "overcharge" that recipients of these telephone calls are forced to pay. That is the portion, above all costs and profit gleaned by MCI that New York State claims for itself and uses to fund inmate healthcare and other services, according to the DOCS.
As lawyers litigate the issue, families of New York State inmates are left to deal with the hazards of the MCI deal without assistance. The high costs, said Dickerson, force many to choose between maintaining critical family ties and putting food on the table. And MCIâ€™s company policies cut off access to loved ones for those who cannot pay.
Last summer, Rosina, who asked us to conceal her real identity for fear of reprisals against her incarcerated husband, started to notice charges on her phone bill for collect calls she had never received. She says she tried everything to resolve the erroneous charges, spending hours on the phone with customer service and even contacting the New York Office of Consumer Services for assistance.
After weeks of trying phone calls and waiting on hold, Rosina decided to withhold her payment, certain that her good standing with the company -- evidenced by the close to $30,000 Rosina says she had spent on phone bills throughout her husbandâ€™s incarceration -- would play in her favor.
But, Rosina recounted, her complaints were of no consequence -- company policy dictates that because her balance was not paid in full, her telephone would be blocked from receiving calls from her husband.
Rosina, unlike many of the callsâ€™ recipients, paid the charges and had her phone service partially restored within a matter of days. But, said Dickerson, many of the families, who draw largely from poor inner-city neighborhoods, cannot afford to pay the charges so quickly.
In 2002 alone, those rates added up to $39 million for MCI. For New York that meant $22.4 million for state coffers that fund inmate programs.
According to the Campaign for Telephone Justice, in New York, MCI charges prison-call recipients a $3 connection fee and 16 cents per minute thereafter. At those rates, estimates the Campaign, the average inmates collect call will cost more than 600 percent more than market call rates.
But this is no small-scale operation. The stateâ€™s 71 DOCS-run prison facilities are currently home to 3,335 telephones that allow collect-only telephone calls. State tallies indicate that inmates complete over 500,000 calls per month, logging close to 9.5 million minutes of phone usage as part of the Inmate Call Home Program. Adding attempted calls that are not completed brings the count to over 2 million inmate-generated calls per month.
An independent audit of the funds that the state received, found that roughly three-quarters of the money went directly to inmate health care costs. The rest of the money, according to Jim Flatow, public affairs spokesperson for the NY DOCS, went to things like providing the free buses that bring families from the city to the prisons and to the free postage that inmates receive.
Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York too agreed that high charges can be a deal-breaker for poor families.
"Making these phone rates too high can contribute to the weakening and breaking of already fragile ties," Gangi said.
A family safety net for inmates is not just a personal issue, argued Gangi, it is a matter for public concern. Numerous studies on prisoner recidivism point to a dramatic decrease in a personâ€™s return to crime if there is a strong family connection to ease the post-incarceration transition.
"So far the prison system has blown off such complaints," Gangi said.
But there are options. California, North Carolina, Nebraska, Indiana and Missouri have either eliminated or reduced the commissions they get for inmate phone service. Other states have instituted debit calling.
The Federal Communications Commission is currently studying the problem, said Dickerson, but a decision on the controversial and differing policies is not expected any time soon.