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EDITORIAL

Calling home: A hardship for prisoners, a boon to Bristol County sheriff

A court ruling in favor of the sheriff puts the onus on Massachusetts lawmakers to end the practice of charging exorbitant phone fees to inmates and their loved ones.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson spoke to the media at the ICE facility at the Bristol County Sheriff's correctional complex in Dartmouth in May.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson spoke to the media at the ICE facility at the Bristol County Sheriff's correctional complex in Dartmouth in May.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Allison is a Brockton mother of two kids whose husband is a detainee at Bristol County’s C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in Dartmouth. He has been in the facility for a little over a year. The last time Allison saw him was in early March, before county jails and state prisons suspended in-person visits as one of their safety protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allison tries to call her husband daily so he can stay in touch, especially with their 8-year-old son. But each phone call is expensive. “It can add up super quickly,” Allison said. “I find myself adding the maximum amount of money to my prison telephone account, which is $50 every two days, more or less.” Plus, she gets charged a $3 fee for every recharge. Allison is an administrative employee in a nonprofit organization and doesn’t make a lot of money. “When things are tight in terms of finances, I have to cut back those phone conversations to very brief check-ins, but that is not doing any justice to my children.”

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The high cost of telephone calls in county jails prompted the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services and other advocacy groups for inmates to file a lawsuit in 2018 against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Securus Technologies Inc., the calling service vendor that Hodgson contracts. The suit’s four plaintiffs — two of them inmates — argued that Hodgson’s Securus telephone contracts represented a scheme of illegal kickbacks to raise revenue for the sheriff’s office, which in turn nearly doubled the cost of calls made from Bristol county jails.

But last month, US District Court Judge Indira Talwani decided the case in favor of Hodgson and Securus, while calling the plaintiffs’ concerns “timely as our communities consider how the criminal justice system may best achieve its stated goals.” Talwani ultimately ruled that, under Massachusetts law, sheriffs have the authority to generate revenue from inmate telephone services. The judge’s ruling puts the onus on the Massachusetts Legislature to rein in what prisons and jails in the state charge inmates and families for phone calls. Lawmakers must act swiftly to close this unjust loophole.

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Here’s why. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, which researches phone justice in jails and prisons across the country, Hodgson charges $5.40 for a 15-minute phone call from Bristol county facilities, which is higher than most other counties in the country. (The median jail phone rate nationwide is $3.75 for a 15-minute call, according to PPI.) The cost of a 15-minute call from Bristol County is 3.5 times higher than the cost of a 15-minute call from a Massachusetts state prison. Shockingly, New Hampshire’s rates are more affordable: A call from a Massachusetts prison is 7.5 times higher than a call from a state prison in the Granite State.

Curbing phone call costs for inmates is mostly done “on a state-by-state basis, and that’s where this case is disappointing, because the court could have clarified the issue and didn’t,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of PPI. “This is a basic bread-and-butter issue for families and, at a time where poorer communities in the state are stressed, this is a bad time to have a regressive tax.”

It bears noting that Hodgson and Securus started offering twice-a-week, 30-minute free phone calls in March when the pandemic hit, which surely offered some relief to prisoners and their families. In other prisons and jails across the country it contracts with, Securus implemented similar, but not uniform, policies of limited free calls. But Allison said they now have been reduced to a single 15-minute free call a week in Bristol county.

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“It’s a travesty,” said Allison, who did not want to give her last name for fear of retaliation from the sheriff’s office. “These men cannot see their families because of the coronavirus, and they’re scaling back on our ability to speak with our loved ones.”

What’s worse, the prohibitive cost of talking to inmates goes beyond Hodgson’s office. His is not the only sheriff’s office or state prison that signed phone service contracts with Securus that are onerous for inmates and their loved ones but generous for the sheriffs’ offices and the state’s Department of Correction. This is because Securus typically offers “site commissions,” which constitute a kickback from the vendor to the facility. With these commissions, phone companies incentivize prisons and jails to charge high phone rates in exchange for a share of the revenue.

For instance, according to court documents filed in the Bristol county lawsuit, Hodgson’s office was paid $1.17 million by Securus in commissions from 2011 to 2013; then the company paid Bristol County a one-time upfront payment of $820,000 to cover 2016-2020.

The good news is that there is pending legislation on Beacon Hill that would either eliminate commissions or provide inmate phone services for free in state prisons and jails. “Rikers Island [in New York City] is now free and was done by city ordinance,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “The San Francisco jail system offers free calls now. The Connecticut Legislature is likely to pass it next session.”

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Such precedent is encouraging. Massachusetts lawmakers should end the practice of allowing companies and sheriffs to prey on inmates for revenue. Exorbitant phone calls serve only to undermine successful reentry for prisoners, costing taxpayers far more in the end.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.