A lawsuit filed this week challenges an exploitive and abusive practice embraced by Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson — and other sheriffs across the state. Four plaintiffs, two of them inmates, sued Hodgson and Securus Technologies Inc., the company that provides phone services for inmates at the Bristol County jails, citing violations of Massachusetts' consumer protection laws. The lawsuit alleges that Hodgson's contract with Securus includes an illegal payoff that has nearly doubled the cost inmates have to pay for phone calls.
The lawsuit is a start at addressing what has been a persistent injustice for inmates. It should also lead to action from the Legislature, which has a duty to protect consumers — including prisoners — from outrageous business practices, and could be tightening the rules for telephone service in prisons.
Unfortunately, the practice of charging inmates exorbitant rates for a phone call is not limited to Bristol County. The predatory and corruption-prone inmate telephone industry has been under scrutiny for nearly two decades. Securus and Global Tel Link, the two private equity-backed companies that dominate the industry, are allowed to pay a commission, a concession fee of sorts, to jails and prisons in exchange for getting exclusive contracts. These high fees are then transferred to the inmates and their families.
For example, Securus paid the sheriff's office $1.7 million between August 2011 and June 2013. Securus then paid the sheriff's office a fee of $820,000 to cover 2016 to 2020.
Securus has similar contracts with most counties in the state, which include hefty site commissions that are then passed on to prisoners' phone rates. In Franklin County, for instance, inmates have to pay $3.21 for the first minute and 21 cents for every additional minute, bringing the cost of a 15-minute call to $6.15. In Suffolk County, the first minute costs $3 while the additional minute is 10 cents. At Bristol County, Securus charges $3.16 for the first minute and 16 cents for each additional minute.
Although an existing rule is meant to cap phone charges for prisoners, the companies circumvented it by arguing that since they are Internet-based phone services, the rule from the landline era doesn't apply to them.
Efforts to curb the predatory inmate calling market have essentially gone nowhere in Massachusetts. But a new bipartisan bill was introduced in the US Senate in March.
At the state level, the Legislature included a provision to study the issue of prison phone calls in the sweeping criminal justice bill that was recently signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker.
That's a timid step; the case for reform is already conclusive. Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York are among states that have banned the practice of commissions paid by the inmate phone companies altogether. The Legislature should close the loophole that has allowed Internet-based phone providers to escape caps, and it should bar commissions.
In the meantime, the lawsuit provides a chance at justice. Prisoners, many of whom are stuck in jail simply because they are too poor to meet bail, shouldn't be a profit center for private equity firms.