During the year and two months Dwayne Lee spent at Rikers, he spent over $2,500 on phone calls alone, thanks to the steep costs imposed by phone companies contracted by the city. He not only called home to stay connected to his four children, ages six to 14, but also made phone calls to lawyers and agencies as he fought his case. (Lee, now an organizer with VOCAL-NY, declined to talk about the charges against him, which are still pending.)
“You don’t realize how much you spend on calls,” he said, noting that there was no way to keep track of the minutes while on the phone. Instead, he found out at the jail’s commissary where he tried to buy soap and deodorant only to learn that all the money on his account had been spent on calls. “That happened a lot of times,” he recalled.
The costs caused Lee’s family to juggle their financial priorities. They postponed doing laundry, bought fewer school supplies, and couldn’t pay for the children’s school trips. At times, Lee recalled, his children’s mother would have to borrow money from friends to pay for her own cellphone bill.
That's about to change. The New York City jail system will soon be required to provide free domestic telephone calls to its detainees, thanks to a bill passed by the City Council on Wednesday afternoon.
The New York City Department of Correction contracts with Securus, one of the two prison telecommunication giants, to provide phone services for people in its jail system. Securus currently charges 50 cents for the first minute of each call and 5 cents for each additional minute; $1.20 for a 15-minute call or $1.70 for a half hour may not seem exorbitant, especially compared to the higher phone rates in other systems. (Texas jails and prisons, which also contract with Securus, charge $3.15, or 21 cents a minute, for a 15-minute call). But those dollars add up.
“If you’re spending 21 minutes calling in the morning and then again at night, that’s three dollars a day,” pointed out Vidal Guzman, a community organizer with JustLeadership USA and the Close Rikers campaign. That means that one week costs $21, in a year the phone bill could easily top $1,000.
According to the Corrections Accountability Project at the Urban Justice Center, 26,000 phone calls are made each day from the city’s jails, costing family members over $21,000 on a daily basis.
Three-quarters of the jails’ 9,000-plus detainees are pre-trial, meaning that they have been arrested and, unable to afford the cost of bail, are awaiting their day in court. The average stint in a NYC jail is 66 days, though approximately 20 percent (or 1,812 people) spend more than three months behind bars. With pre-trial detention stretching weeks, if not months, the price of hearing the voices of family members and loved ones can be steep.
Guzman first entered Rikers at age 16 on drug charges. He called home every day to help his six-year-old sister with her homework. The teenager talked his baby sister through math problems that he couldn’t see and, when he couldn’t, encouraged her to seek help from her afterschool programs and not to give up. But those calls came at a price—paying for jail phone calls meant that his family sometimes skipped meals or put off buying new sneakers when his sister outgrew hers.
Intro 0741, introduced by City Council speaker Corey Johnson and Brooklyn Councilmember Justin Brannan, eases that burden. “I am proud of this bill because we should not be profiting from people who can’t afford to make bail,” stated Johnson shortly before the Council vote. “The amount of money in a person’s commissary should not determine how often they can connect with friends, families and people in their communities.”
The law also prevents the city from collecting any revenue for providing telephone services, and it explicitly prohibits commissions, or what advocates call kickbacks, from the contracting telephone provider. The DOC currently collects $5 million from telephone fees per year.
“This [five million] is only the beginning of the story, not the full picture,” says Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project. “There was a lot more that was being extracted from the community. The DOC reported that Securus made another $2.9 million in call rates thanks in part to the fact that interstate calls are not commissionable.”
Before a person can call their family, they need to have money on their account—and there are fees for that as well. There’s a $3 fee for each deposit—and a maximum of $50 per deposit. Securus collected at least $474,000 on $7.9 million in calls, according to Tylek. “Conservatively, Intro 741A would protect directly-impacted communities—overwhelming low-income communities of color—from the annual extraction of more than $8.3 million,” she said. “It would also open the door for communication for those who have not had the money to connect with loved ones previously.”
The bill now goes to Mayor de Blasio, who has 30 days to sign or veto it. (If he does nothing, the bill automatically becomes law.) The DOC then has 270 days to implement the new law.
Guzman has been out of prison for three years and, last week, attended his sister’s high school graduation. If not for those daily phone calls, he wonders, “Where would my sister be today?” He credits those daily calls with not only helping his sister stay on track to graduate, but keeping their relationship intact. “You can’t create any type of connection if you don’t have a phone call.”