How Activists Convinced New York City To Stop Profiting Off Prisoners’ Phone Calls
News of the victory is spreading rapidly to other cities.
Being incarcerated for just over a year on Rikers Island, the New York City jail known for its violence and human rights violations, was hard on Dwayne Lee. “It was very traumatic for me,” he said. “Every day when I woke up, I woke up with tears.”
But one thing that eased his suffering was speaking with his six children. “Sometimes I would get on the phone at around 7 in the morning just to make sure they get up for school,” he recalled. “I felt like I was there with them until I got off the phone.” After hanging up, “I couldn’t wait to get on the phone again.”
It was also hard on his children when he couldn’t get in touch. “If I miss a day calling them, they worry about me and they think somebody hurt me,” he said. “They was really concerned about me.” It was also important for him to get on the phone to speak with his legal representatives.
But up until recently, the family and friends of people incarcerated in New York City jails were paying a collective $8 million a year just to speak on the phone with their loved ones. For Lee, that meant spending more than $2,500 to talk to his family while he was incarcerated. His children’s mother survives on a fixed income and food stamps, so finding $20 or $25 a week so they could call him was difficult.
“We go to any lengths to get any money to keep in contact with the outside world so we can tell them we still are alive,” he said. “I went through a lot of suffering.”
Later this year, other families in New York won’t have to endure the same suffering. Last week, the City Council passed a law that will make all calls in and out of city jails free.
Once signed into law by the mayor, the legislation will be the first of its kind in the country. The prison phone industry has grown to a $1.2 billion a year business, mostly run by private companies that can charge as much as $1.22 a minute. That doesn’t take into account the associated fees, which make up nearly 40 percent of the cost of calls to the country’s jails and prisons. The Federal Communications Commission capped the cost of prison and jail phone calls under President Barack Obama in 2015, but the agency reversed course after President Trump appointed a new chairperson who refused to defend the policy in court. It was later struck down, leaving any potential regulation of prisoners’ phone calls in the hands of state and local governments.
In New York City, in-state calls cost 5 cents a minute and out-of-state calls—to any number with an area code from outside the state of New York, including cell phones—cost 21 cents a minute. Securus, the company that the city has contracted to provide phone services in its jails, allows someone to put only $50 on an account at a time, with a $3 charge each time, forcing families to keep paying the $3 fee every time they want to spend more. The city then takes a cut from every phone call.
“We view this as a wealth extraction from our communities that just isn’t just,” said Kristen Miller, criminal justice campaign manager at Color of Change, which also advocated free calls. The city “should just not be profiting off of people in jail.”
The costs are a huge burden for struggling families, said Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project. Tylek estimates that when fees and long distance charges are included, jail calls cost families nearly $10 million a year. “That means a lot for the communities that are already economically distressed,” Tylek pointed out. After all, 72 percent of the people in city jails are there because they can’t afford to post bail ahead of trial.
But compared with what the city spends on the Department of Correction — over $1 billion a year — this drop barely makes a ripple in the bucket. “It was actually described to me by a staff member of a City Council member as equivalent to a rounding error,” Tylek said. “It’s not a meaningful amount of money for the city, and a huge amount of money for these communities.”
This math came to light when Brooklyn Defender Services realized a couple of years ago that the city budget had a revenue stream from its own Department of Correction. So Jared Chausow, senior policy specialist at the organization, filed a Freedom of Information Law request to find out what was behind it. He discovered that the city was profiting from contracts for services in the Department of Correction. These contracts generated not just $5 million in revenue from phone calls, but also revenue from things like commissary and vending machines. Brooklyn Defender Services and other groups decided to lobby the city not just to stop making money from the contract with Securus, but to make calls free, as they were in the 1990s.
A number of factors combined to ensure their success. Lawmakers were eager to do something to appease the long-running campaign to reform Rikers Island that has gained traction in recent years. It also helped that Council Member Corey Johnson, who had taken in an interest in the issue of costly jail calls, became speaker of the council in January. “In cities where there is real criminal justice transformation taking place … there are wins to be had,” Tylek said. “Where there’s energy and excitement about criminal justice, there are opportunities.”
But it also took work to organize supporters and stand firm. “Passing this law would not have been possible without the strong coalition of survivors of Rikers and other advocates,” Chausow said. “Direct action by and with impacted people gets the goods.”
That action included people like Lawrence Bartley, now a program assistant at Corrections Accountability Project, whose family had to pay 4 cents a minute on calls to speak to him while he was incarcerated on top of the $3 fee each time they needed to refill their accounts. “They had other bills to pay,” he noted. His wife, who called herself “half a single parent” while he was incarcerated, struggled to afford the calls, but “she had to do it because it was essential that I would call.”
The advocates met with lawmakers one-on-one to get them on board with making calls free, starting with their own council members and then contacting others. They held actions at the public hearings over the bill, carrying signs inscribed with the questions they wanted City Council members to ask the Department of Correction. “We found that was actually very effective, many of the council members were sitting there reading our signs,” Tylek said. “Some of our questions did get posed.”
Miller agreed with Tylek’s assessment. “Our main thing was we just hopped on it at the beginning and stayed involved, even in … what can be seen as less important meetings like these small committee meetings,” she said. “Staying loud, going to every meeting.”
At first they were told that a vote was likely in the fall. But then the timeline was sped up to get a vote before the summer recess—except the advocates were told that the bill would only ensure that the city stopped profiting off jail calls, not make them free. In response, advocates went back to community members who have been impacted by high phone bills. “The consensus was it should be free,” Bartley said. “People shouldn’t have to pay anything because families are struggling to pay bills and to have another bill … would just be another added burden.”
So they pushed back on council members, armed with the argument that the community was rejecting its half-measure. “It was more than anything standing our ground with conviction … and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to support something that’s a compromise,’” Tylek said. Two days later, they heard back: A bill was getting introduced to make all calls free. It passed days later.
The concept has quickly spread after the victory in New York, especially given the speed of passage. “We’ve already started getting calls from advocates in other cities,” Tylek said, including Chicago and Philadelphia just days after the City Council’s vote on the bill, which was introduced in April. “First, asking how this happened, and secondly how we might bring this to their counties or cities or jurisdictions.”
Color of Change is particularly looking at other cities with large jail populations where they might be able to replicate what happened in New York City, such as Los Angeles. “The fact that it had pretty decent support in New York is a great sign,” Miller said. “Maybe it will do the same elsewhere.”
The work in New York isn’t done. It’s still not clear exactly how the city intends to make calls free. Liz Peters, a spokesperson for Council Member Keith Powers, a sponsor of the bill, wrote in an email, “[T]he city is picking up the cost, but the Department of Correction (DOC) will have to amend their contract.” Mitchell Abramson, press officer for the Department of Correction, responded when asked for further clarification, “We are exploring our options in order to comply with pending legislation.” The groups that advocated the legislation are also planning to ensure that as it gets implemented there aren’t tradeoffs, such as reducing prisoners’ access to calls.
It’s also one small victory in a larger fight. “This is definitely one step,” Miller said. City, county, and state governments “should not be making any money off of the jail or prison population. Anything we can do to pick away at that [is] a step forward toward ending mass incarceration.”
“We’re playing a game of Jenga and we just pulled out one block,” she added. “Hopefully it’ll all fall down.”