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New York Jail’s Prolonged COVID Visitation Ban Drives Big Profits on Detainee Calls

More than two years into the pandemic, the Broome County Sheriff’s Office is still prohibiting all jail visits. The policy helped them take in more than a half-million dollars in 2021.

a phone in a prison
Jason Farrar/Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0

This article was published in partnership with New York Focus.

Rudy’s family lives just four blocks from the Broome County jail, where he’s been locked up for about six months. But they’re not allowed to come see him, because visitation at the jail is still suspended under restrictions the jail imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Rudy relies on costly video calls to stay in touch with his kids, ages 7 months, 2, and 3.

(Incarcerated sources asked to be identified by their first name or an alias to protect their privacy.)

“My girl will hold the phone to them,” Rudy said of video calls with his family. “They’ll turn away. Look at it weird. They’ll look at me through the video chat and not really say anything, just stare at me.”

The Broome County sheriff’s website states that the visitation ban is “due to COVID-19 precautions.” But many of the state’s jails and all of its prisons have resumed visitations in some form, and Broome has not shown a particular concern with COVID-19 in other areas. In February, New York Focus reported that it had one of the lowest testing rates of any jail in the state.

Detainees and advocates suspect a less noble reason for the continued prohibition on visits: For each call Rudy makes, the jail takes a cut of the profits.

Between January and October 2021, the Sheriff’s department took in well over half a million dollars from detainee phone calls and tablet use, according to records obtained by the local nonprofit Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST), which runs a visitation program at the jail. JUST’s founding member Bill Martin, first published the financial records on his blog, Just Talk.

Last month, Legal Services of Central New York (LSCNY)—a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal assistance—filed a class action suit challenging the jail’s visitation ban. The suit alleges that the policy violates the due process rights of the jail’s detainees, subjecting them to “excessive costs and fees” that place a crushing financial burden on detainees and their loved ones. The costs are so high that communication has become “effectively unavailable” for many of the people held at the jail, according to the suit.

“This is making so much money for the jail, there’s no motivation for them to stop it,” said Jackson Hengsterman, the coordinator of a jail visitation program at JUST, which is a plaintiff in the suit. “They want to keep the income stream flowing.”

In response to questions for this article, Broome County Sheriff David Harder emailed, “No comment on matters pending in the court.”

Other than one free five-minute phone call per week, the sheriff has put a price tag on all modes of communication. A collect phone call can cost as much as $10 for a 15-minute call to someone with a local area code, according to the complaint.

A video call like the one Rudy and his family use costs 25 cents a minute, according to a recent copy of the jail’s contract with telecommunications giant Global Tel Link and obtained by JUST. Each message sent on a tablet costs 25 cents, plus an additional 50 cents for each attached photo. There’s also an additional charge of 5 cents a minute just for using the tablet in most cases. Each deposit into a detainee’s account for messaging and video calls—which the company has dubbed GettingOut—comes with a fee of $3.33.

Much of that money is kicked back to the sheriff: The jail receives 44 percent of gross revenue generated from phone calls and 20 percent of gross revenue generated from video calls and some tablet access charges.

The visitation ban has also made it harder for outsiders to monitor conditions in the jail. For years before the pandemic, JUST’s volunteer team of college students and retirees had regularly visited detainees to provide companionship, emotional support, and help connecting to services. Detained people also reported abuse and neglect to the volunteers, making the group something of a de facto oversight body for the jail.

“JUST’s visiting program has been instrumental in shining a light on the abuses and medical neglect prisoners face at the Jail,” the complaint reads. Its work has “exposed abuses that have eventually been the subject of lawsuits including: juvenile solitary confinement, discrimination against transgender people, and brutality against prisoners at the hands of corrections officers.”

When in-person visitation ceased in 2020, JUST was forced to switch to online messaging, phone calls, and video calls to communicate with people on the inside. The high costs of those services have led to monthly bills that can run up to almost $1,000, said JUST’s Martin. “We began to run all our money out,” he said. For the jail, however, “COVID has generated really excessive profits that aren’t being monitored.”

As of last month, more than 300 people were held at Broome County jail, the majority of whom have not been sentenced, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. The Appeal and New York Focus spoke with several people incarcerated at the jail who said the sheriff’s policy has taken both a financial and an emotional toll on them and their families.

Nate, who has not been convicted of a crime, has been held pretrial at Broome County jail for about 10 months. “When it comes to birthdays and holidays, I think around these times of year is when you really wish that you would have that in-person visitation,” he said in a video call. (Nate is not his real name.)

Raul, a father of three who is also detained pretrial, has been at the jail since February. “Jail is designed to break families apart, and this is just another way of doing that,” he said. “We’re stuck in here with no human contact with the outside world besides the officer.”

The exorbitant cost of communicating with their loved ones is part of a larger pattern of financial exploitation at the jail, people incarcerated there say. If they break a jail rule, they’re charged $25, Nate wrote.

Rudy says he buys food from the jail’s commissary to supplement the meager and often inedible meals they receive. One pack of ramen soup costs about a dollar, according to a commissary list the sheriff’s office provided to New York Focus and The Appeal, even though a 12-pack of ramen can sell for less than $3 in a grocery store.

“If you don’t buy stuff from commissary, you’re gonna end up starving,” Rudy said.

In addition to food, the commissary sells a variety of items, including religious texts: an English or Spanish language Bible sells for $11.50, a Koran for $27.95, and a prayer rug, typically used by practicing Muslims, for $22.95.

For some detained people, the commissary’s high prices can also make it difficult to keep up with basic hygiene. When detainees arrive at the jail, they’re given a package that includes, among other items, one plastic cup, toothpaste, a “flex toothbrush,” a plastic “safety comb,” and one four-fluid ounce “all in one shave and shampoo body wash,” according to the sheriff’s office. Once those supplies run out, people have to purchase replacements—unless they qualify as indigent, which means they have about a dollar or less in their account. The commissary charges $3.04 for deodorant, $2.72 for toothpaste, and over $3 for most kinds of shampoo.

Amanda has been detained pretrial at the Broome County jail since January. She wrote to The Appeal and New York Focus that she receives an indigent package every week, which includes ten sheets of lined paper, two stamped envelopes, one “flex pen,” the three-in-one wash, and toothpaste.

In Amanda’s first week of incarceration, she spent $200 on food and hygiene items, like shampoo and conditioner, she wrote. Lately, she’s been “living off tray food,” which is “never enough to fill your hunger.” Tampons are supplied by the jail, free of charge, but they’re “very rough” and only come in one size. She can’t afford deodorant, so she shares someone else’s.

Amanda has two children—a daughter, 6, and a son, 10—who are with her mother while she’s in jail. She hasn’t seen either of them in months. She said she’s spoken to her daughter twice, cramming “as much as possible” into the free five-minute phone calls provided by the sheriff’s office.

“My mom can’t afford to do video calls and neither can I,” Amanda wrote. “I’m in here completely alone.”