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Articles about Phone Justice

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 ...

California Appeals Court Affirms Rate Caps and Fee Limitations for Prison Telecoms

by Douglas Ankney

On February 1, 2023, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate Division, affirmed the denial by the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) of challenges to rate caps and fee limitations brought by Securus Technologies LLC (Securus) and Network Communications International Corporation (NCIC) over their contracts in the state’s prisons and jails.

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began regulating incarcerated person calling services (IPCS) due to the lack of competition among providers. By 2016, the FCC had adopted regulations capping per-minute rates at 13 cents in prisons and in jails a range of 19-31 cents, depending on the average daily population (ADP). Caps were also placed on automated payment fees – at $3.00 per transaction – and “live-agent” fees at $5.95 per transaction, as well as fees for paper statements at $2.00 each. IPCS providers were also prohibited from adding any fee to that charged by third-party financial institutions for processing single-call transactions, usually when the recipient of a collect call from a prisoner does not have an account with the IPCS provider at that facility.

However, the caps on intrastate calls were voided when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled the ...

FCC Granted Broader Authority to Regulate Prisoner Call Costs

by Chuck Sharman

On March 16, 2023, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to begin rule-making to implement the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022. Named after a determined woman who tirelessly campaigned to lower her bill to call her imprisoned grandson – which sometimes exceeded $1 per minute – the law passed Congress in November 2022, expanding the FCC’s regulatory power to cover intrastate calls.

Since 2014, when Congress initially granted the FCC authority to cap interstate prison call costs, prices have decreased to approximately 12-14 cents per minute. However, the limits did not apply to calls made within a state, which account for 80% of the total. The new law closed that loophole, over the predictable objections of companies that have sprung up to provide what they call “inmate calling services” (ICS).

The two largest ICS firms are ViaPath – formerly Global Tel*Link (GTL) – and Aventiv Technologies, which owns both Securus and JPay. Aventiv eventually came out in support of the new law, but Chief Communications and Community Engagement Officer Margita Thompson emphasized the need to protect the firm’s investment in setting up and delivering phone and video calls in high-security prison and jail ...

FCC Requires Prison Telecoms to Provide Services for Deaf Prisoners

by Jordan Arizmendi

Life in prison is difficult for anyone, but especially for deaf people. Without a video phone or teletypewriter (TTY), a deaf person cannot communicate with loved ones by phone. Under a new rule that takes effect in 2024, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will require prison phone companies to provide video communication services for prisoners who are deaf and hard of hearing. Announced on September 29, 2022, the new order applies to prisons, jails, immigration detention, juvenile detention and mental health lockups across the nation.

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., the deaf have a right to communication “as effective as” that enjoyed by others. Prisoners must navigate complicated prison bureaucracy, besides being able to comprehend what happens around them. Without special accommodation, a deaf prisoner unable to read English would find it almost impossible to obtain medical care, file a grievance, understand a disciplinary write-up or even read a prison handbook.

The new rule covers point-to-point video calls, which allow direct communication between two signing people. It also covers video relay services, a three-way system that allows a deaf user to sign to a speaking interpreter. ...

Telecoms Exploiting Legal Loopholes to Price Gouge Prisoners and Their Families

by Jacob Barrett

According to a report published by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) on December 15, 2022, for-profit telecom companies are using loopholes in the law to price-gouge prisoners and their families on the cost of phone calls and video visits.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has slowly set regulatory guidelines which have resulted in significant reductions in phone call rates in prisons and jails. [See: PLN, Sep. 2021, p.12.] But firms providing these services have found ways to bypass the restrictions.

The PPI report found four classes of abusive fee tactics which the FCC is trying to reign in. First, the FCC has issued an order which should take effect sometime in 2023, setting provider fees at $5.95. The cap will stop for-profit companies from colluding with Moneygram and Western Union to inflate payment fees.

Second, the FCC has opened for public comment the possibility of banning “double dipping” fees. At least six providers charge up to 21% over the $3 cap on automated fees by adding a “pass through” charge to recover the credit card processor’s fee in the transaction. This is like getting home from dining out to find the restaurant padded your tab with ...

California Makes Calls Free for State Prisoners and Juvenile Detainees, Prohibits Telecom Kickbacks to Prisons and Jails

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On September 29, 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed S.B. 1008 into law, barring government agencies in the state from collecting any part of the revenue from providing calls in prisons and jails. It also makes calls completely free at state prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

State law already mandated service quality levels by telecom providers for the general public, which the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is authorized to enforce. The new bill extends that protection to people held within the California carceral system.

Authored primarily by Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo), the bill was introduced in the Senate in February 2022. It passed on August 29, 2022, with the affirmative votes of 54 Democratic senators, overcoming 15 Republican votes against the bill.

Addressing the telecom industry behind cell bars, the legislation first recognizes the importance of social connection, especially in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders: They are granted completely free calls. So are adults in state prisons. State prisoners and youth in residential placement or detention centers must now be provided calls at no charge either to the person making or the person receiving them, “subject to the operational discretion” of the state Department ...