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Advocates, families fight jail phone fees

One woman said she had to consider her grocery bill every time the phone rang. Another told her son that she could no longer take his calls, that she could not afford the fees.

That is because the callers were behind bars, and every time they call, it costs the person answering far more than regular collect calls, in some cases $10 for a chat of just a few minutes.

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The high phone rates for prison calls, inflated by surcharges, also draw the ire of public defenders, who say they are spending more than $100,000 a year accepting collect calls from jailed clients.

“It’s a huge amount for any one of us to pay, just for a single phone call,” said Bonita ­Tenneriello, a staff lawyer with Prisoners’ Legal Services, an ­inmate advocacy group. “The families, they often don’t have a lot of resources, and for them it’s a real hardship.” Some calls can carry a surcharge as much as about $3 before a conversation starts.

Now a team of inmate advocates, public defenders, prisoners, and their friends and families have joined in a petition to the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable, asking the regulatory agency to reduce what they call the astronomical costs outside vendors charge for phone calls from prisons.

After years of complaints by inmate advocates, the department opened a case in the fall, and a long-awaited public hearing is set for Thursday.

At issue is how much the vendors who run the phone services from jails and prisons can charge for phone calls and whether extra commissions that they pay to the prison facilities, part of their contracts, should come from the vendors’ profits, or from families struggling to pay the bills.

‘It’s a huge amount for any one of us to pay. . . . The families, they often don’t have a lot of resources.’

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Two corporations run the phone services at the majority of the state’s prisons and county jails: Securus Technologies of Texas and Global Tel Link of ­Alabama.

Representatives of those companies could not be reached for comment, but the companies have opposed the rate reductions since the Depart­ment of Telecommunications and Cable opened the case.

The companies have also maintained that the rates are proper for the costs of operating and that the surcharges are allowed by state law.

The state agency that preceded the Department of Telecommunications and Cable ruled in 1998 that while rates should be comparable to what all customers pay for phone services, vendors who provide services from prisons could add surcharges to accommodate ­extra costs such as accounting for security, personnel and collect calling. The agency allowed surcharges as high as $3 a call.

In many cases, the companies have used the surcharges to pay the jails and prisons commissions as part of their contracts. The jails and prisons, defending the policy, use the commissions to fund training and drug rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism, costs that would otherwise go to taxpayers.

But prisoner advocates say that struggling families of ­inmates should not bear the brunt of those programs and that any commissions paid to the prisons should come from the vendors’ profits.

The advocates also argue that the actual costs of providing the services has dropped in recent years with development of new technology, centralization of services, and elimination of personnel, and so the rates should reflect that drop.

A report by Douglas A. ­Dawson, an independent consultant hired by the prisoner advocates, found that vendors in county jails are charging more than they are at state ­facilities and more than their counterparts in other states.

The consultant’s analysis of recent contracts with the vendors, for instance, showed that Global Tel Link charged, at the state’s prisons, a 65 cent surcharge for each call that was put on a debit card, not including any fees for activating the debit card, and subsequently charged about 7 cents a minute for the call.

The company also imposes a surcharge of 86 cents and 10 cents a minute for each collect call.

Meanwhile, the state ­Department of Correction was receiving a 35 percent commission through its deal with ­Global Tel Link, money which went into the state’s General Fund.

In Plymouth County, Global Tel Link paid the county sheriff a 60 percent commission, accord­ing to Dawson’s report. Meanwhile, the company charged customers $3.10 for the first minute of a call, and then 10 cents for each additional minute.

In addition, the company charged a monthly fee of $2.89 for anybody who receives a bill.

In Barnstable County, by contrast, Securus charges a $3 surcharge plus 10 cents per minute for local phone calls. That jumps to a $3.95 surcharge plus 89 cents a minute for interstate phone calls. The company pays the sheriff’s ­office a 52 percent commission.

The Department of Correction and the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association said they would not comment on the ­reduction request, pointing out they do not set or charge the rates.

A spokesman for the Plymouth sheriff’s office ­defended use of the commissions to fund programs, saying the commissions alleviate pressure on taxpayers.

“It’s a funding mechanism, the proceeds of which are used to pay for other inmate programs,” said the spokesman, John Birtwell.

But inmate advocates say the fees are too high for struggling families. To make matters worse, families have to pay the surcharge even when a call is dropped after a minute or two, something they called a regular occurrence.

Christine Dutra, 49, of Fall River, said her husband is awaiting trial at the Ash Street jail in New Bedford, and they have an understanding that he will call again whenever a call is dropped.

Dutra, a nurse, said she spends as much as $100 a week to talk to her husband, not includ­ing the activation fee for the debit cards he uses to call her.

She is glad to do it, because she wants her husband to be part of her children’s and grandchildren’s lives, she said.

“I try to make sure he’s part of our everyday life,” said Dutra. However, she knows that others cannot afford the costs: her husband’s fellow inmates repeat­edly ask her to check in on their own wives and children, because they cannot ­afford the costs themselves.

Waleska Rivera, 56, of ­Westfield, said she has to talk to her son by phone, because the trip to his jail in Ludlow is too long. She wants to check on his health: He has regular seizures. But she has to tell him that she will talk when he can. Twenty dollars here, $20 there, not including the processing fee.

“When the money for the phone goes, I can’t do anything more,” she said.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com. Follow him on
Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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