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Articles about Phone Justice

Massachusetts Becomes the Fifth State to Make Prison Phone Calls Free

Until December 1, 2023, Massachusetts prisoners and their families paid 12 cents per minute for phone calls, 14 cents in jails, though the first 10 minutes there every month were free. That added up to about $25 million annually—money that will now be saved, after the 2024 state budget took effect. Signed by Democratic Governor Maura Healy on August 9, 2023, that included an amendment making telecommunication free for prisoners.

That made Massachusetts the fifth state to mandate free telecommunications from its lockups, after Connecticut (in 2021), California (in 2022), as well as Colorado and Minnesota (in 2023). But the measure improves on legislation in those other states because it applies to both prisons and jails, covering not only phone calls but also video calls, email and messaging. The law also bars lockups from taking kickbacks from prison telecom vendors—something the state supreme court said it would not do, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.50.]

A dedicated $20-million trust fund will pay the costs. Other provisions protect in-person visitation as well as prisoners’ access to calls, since supporters of the reform worried that fewer calls would be available once they became free. Jails and prisons may not limit ...

Minnesota Prison on Lockdown After Protest Over Dirty Water, Lack of Phone Use and Out-of-Cell Time

Over Labor Day weekend 2023, approximately 100 prisoners refused to return to their cells at Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) in Stillwater. They were protesting limited access to showers, phones and recreation, which the state Department of Corrections (DOC) blamed on a staff shortage.

The protest lasted seven hours on September 3, 2023, but the prison remained on lockdown the following day. All but two of the protesters returned to their cells. Those two were placed in solitary confinement, including Phillip Vance, 42, who has served 20 years for a 2002 murder he steadfastly insists he didn’t commit.

Vance said the “protest” involved sitting and playing cards in the dayroom rather than returning to small and stifling cells at the un-air-conditioned prison. Before he went to “the hole,” he said: “We’ve been locked in our cells the last couple of days with record temperatures, no access to ice, water, showers, to our families.”

Complaints about dirty water, which comes from a well onsite, met with pushback from DOC. Spokesman Andy Skoogman called it “patently false,” insisting the water “has been deemed safe by testing” and there has been “no outbreak or abnormal number of water borne illnesses, such as diarrhea or ...

Ninth Circuit Revives Challenge by Federal Prisoner in Arizona to BOP’s 300-Minute Monthly Phone Cap

by David M. Reutter

On July 3, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy that caps a prisoner’s phone calls at a total of 300 minutes per month.

The suit was filed in federal court for the District of Arizona by Kenneth Daniel Tiedemann. A father to three children and their sole caregiver prior to incarceration, he maintained close relationships with them from 2014 to 2016, while incarcerated at a privately-operated prison that allowed him to speak to them by phone “an average of 30-45 minutes a day” and “sometimes much longer,” he said.

After a 2017 transfer to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Mendota, California, Tiedemann’s phone calls were cut to just 10 minutes per day. The change to a BOP-operated prison subjected him to agency policy that limits prisoners to 300 minutes (5 hours) per month of phone time absent “good cause.” See: BOP Program Statement P5264.08: Inmate Telephone Regulations § 8(f) (2008).

The warden at FCI-Mendota denied Tiedemann’s request for an exception, a decision affirmed by BOP’s Regional Director. Tiedemann was then transferred to USP-Tucson in Arizona, where ...

Compensation Awarded to California Non-Profit and HRDC Officials for Efforts Reducing Prison Phone Rates

On June 9, 2023, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a total compensation award of $113,362 for the Center for Accessible Technology (CAT), finding the organization had made a substantial contribution to PUC’s rulemaking on prison phone services.

CAT, a non-profit that advocates for disability rights, filed a claim for compensation with PUC on October 22, 2021, seeking an award of $125,174 for providing “substantial contribution” in a previous PUC rulemaking decision. That prior decision, D.21-08-037, adopted an interim rate cap of $.05 per minute for intrastate phone calls made by prisoners, including calling services for prisoners with disabilities; it also barred phone service providers from charging certain fees and “prohibited the imposition of any ancillary fee or service fee not explicitly approved in this decision.” [See: PLN, Oct.2012, p.48.]

According to its claim, CAT had been “an active participant in order to address issues of concern to our constituency of customers with disabilities, including the large number of incarcerated persons with disabilities.” CAT wrote it had worked in conjunction with PLN’s publisher, the Human Rights Defense Center, which had established the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and Stop Prison Profiteering campaign. HRDC executive director Paul Wright and former ...

Minnesota Makes All Calls Free in Prisons and Jails

On May 19, 2023, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed into law SF 2909, the Judiciary and Public Safety budget bill. Introduced by two Democratic state lawmakers, Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten and Rep. Esther Agbaje, the measure made calls free in all state prisons. With it, Minnesota joins California, Colorado and Connecticut in making prison calls free.

Starting on July 1, 2023, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) website now declares that “all calls from an incarcerated person at [DOC] will be at no cost to you nor the incarcerated person calling you.” DOC lockups will also not process any pre-paid calls.

Minnesota families were spending $4.5 million per year to speak with loved ones behind bars. The prison telecom industry is dominated by a few private corporations that exploit vulnerable and financially struggling families, including Securus Technologies, which services over 3,400 U.S. prisons and jails; ViaPath Technologies — formerly Global Tel*Link – which contracts with nearly 2,000 other lockups; and Inmate Calling Solutions, which is in over 230 prisons and jails.

Much of the Minnesota prison population is composed of minorities, whose families were paying a hefty share of these firms’ fees. The authors of state House Bill HF2922, one of ...

Colorado One of Four States Making Phone Calls Free for Prisoners

On June 7, 2023, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed House Bill (HB) 23-1133, requiring the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide, administer and – most importantly – not to profit from communications services used by prisoners. Over the next two years, the state will pick up an increasing share of the cost of prisoner phone calls, rising from 25% on September 1, 2023, to 35% on July 1, 2024. By July 1, 2025, DOC will cover 100% of the cost.  

For the un-incarcerated, services like WhatsApp provide free calling worldwide. But Colorado is now one of just four states providing prisoners free calls. Connecticut became the first state to do so in 2021, followed the next year by California. [See: PLN, Aug. 2021, p.56; and Apr. 2023, p.43.] After Colorado passed HB 23-1133, Minnesota lawmakers voted to make their state the fourth to provide free prisoner calls starting July 1, 2023.

Calling home poses a costly problem for the incarcerated. Prison phone contracts typically rebate a portion of the fee to the prison as a commission, and these kickbacks exorbitantly inflate the cost of a prison phone call. In Kentucky, for example, prisoners must pay $5.70 to make ...

Sheriffs Offered Caribbean Cruises and Florida Retreats As Part Of Jail Telecom Contracts

by Hayden Betts

Members of five sheriff’s offices across the country were offered cruises from “Tampa Bay to the Caribbean” as part of jail telecommunications contracts with the vendor Smart Communications, according to documents obtained by The Appeal.

Smart Communications is a for-profit company that sells communications services including phone, video call, and email-like messages to people incarcerated in publicly funded prisons and jails. It contracts with the public agencies that operate those facilities, often sheriffs offices, to secure the exclusive right to operate within them. Its Florida-based CEO and founder, Jon Logan, is already controversial among critics of the criminal legal system—Logan has faced scrutiny for posting lavish images of himself on Instagram on board his yacht, driving luxury cars, and wearing expensive suits, among other high-end pursuits funded by selling expensive communications services to incarcerated people. In the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, Smart Communications charges people $3.00 for a 30-minute video call, $.50 per electronic message, and $1.00 per electronic image.

Activists and families of incarcerated people have long criticized Smart Communications’ digitized mail services—which scan hard copies of prison mail, create searchable databases of imprisoned people’s communications, and prevent imprisoned people from receiving original versions of ...

As e-Messaging Takes Off in U.S. Prisons, Complaints Over Service and Costs Multiply

by David M. Reutter

Historically, prisoners have been largely left out of the technology wave changing the way the rest of the world communicates and does business. It wasn’t until March 2009 that the first phones for prisoner use were installed by the Texas Department Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Before then, prisoners were limited to legal calls. To use the phones, prisoners could not have any major disciplinary infractions. Gang-affiliated offenders or those on death row could not use them at all. Almost 15 years later, the Internet and cellphone have swept society, but many prisoners are still left with a wall phone – at exorbitant prices – or snail mail.

Of course most prisoners use their electronic devices to communicate with friends or family members, some they have been out of contact with for years or decades. In Florida from around 1999 to 2009, accepting a 15-minute collect call from a prisoner to someone in Michigan cost around $26. Intrastate prisoner calls were so cost prohibitive that many prisoners were told not to call anymore.

Since then prices for phone calls have decreased, squeezing earnings for the prison profiteers peddling communication services. But smart executives foresaw the future lay in ...

Prolonged COVID-19 Visitation Restrictions Net Georgia Jails Over $1.5 Million in Telecom Kickbacks

by Jordan Arizmendi

According to a report by the Georgia Current on April 14, 2023, jails in several of the state’s coastal counties were still profiting by extending COVID-19 visitation bans, forcing detainees and their loved ones to use more expensive phone calls or video calls to stay in touch.

When the report was published, over three years after the start of the pandemic, hundreds of detainees at the Chatham County Detention Center (DC) in Savannah were forced to choose from a menu of high-cost communication options: $1 to send out a tweet-sized text; $3 to make a 15-minute phone call; a whopping $8 to make a 20-minute video call. As a result, a detainee without a fat wad of cash is out of luck if he wants to speak to his wife or see his baby. Restrictions do not apply to visits with an attorney.

In-person visitation had resumed at the Glynn County DC. But there was still none at lockups in the other five counties: Bryan, Camden, Chatham, Liberty and McIntosh. In 2021 and 2022, these jails made at least $1.5 million in kickbacks from fees collected for phone and video calls, as well as text messages.

At ...

Prison Profiteer Who Chairs Christian Seminary Board Called Not Very ‘Christlike’

by Kevin W. Bliss

Members of Princeton Theological Seminarians for Peace and Justice (SPJ) sent a letter on March 14, 2023, calling for resignation of seminary Board of Trustees Chairman Michael Fisch. After learning Fisch’s hedge fund, American Securities, owns prison telecom giant ViaPath, the group complained that the way the firm profits off exploiting prisoners – many people of color – runs counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ, which their group should be exemplifying.

Dozens of seminary alumni signed the letter, including Rev. J. Amos Caley, leader of New Jersey’s Reformed Church of Highland Park; Pastor Erich Kussman of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton; as well as SPJ moderator and seminarian Angel Nalbega. They demanded seminary President Jonathan Walton ensure more transparency and greater accountability for Board members, finding it especially concerning that what Fisch and other members do appears contrary to SPJ’s mission.

“We are appalled,” read the letter, “that the board of trustees is chaired by someone who makes profit from conditions we have been taught to work against and have been trained at the Seminary to mitigate in our roles as pastors, chaplains, and social workers.”

ViaPath is a privately held company known until ...