During the pandemic, MA jails and prisons have shut down visiting, and in an attempt to help keep families in touch with their loved ones, they have begun offering a couple of free phone calls per week, though some facilities are starting to phase them out. While we think all phone calls should be made free, not just during the pandemic, as New York City and San Francisco have done, at the very least the rates should be brought down to within reason.
The MA Department of Telecommunications and Cable (DTC) has set an interim in-state rate cap of 21 cents per minute debit and 25 cents collect to match the FCC’s interstate cap. Nevertheless, for in-state calls, five of ten jails that hold contracts with a Texas company, Securus Technologies, continue to charge over $3.10 for the first minute, in blatant violation of the DTC order. Those counties are: Barnstable, Berkshire, Bristol, Dukes, and Franklin. It turns out that five counties’ contracts are expiring next week: Berkshire, Bristol, and Franklin (along with Worcester and Middlesex, which abide by the DTC cap, but just barely at 21 cents per minute and 18 cents, respectively). For comparison, the New Hampshire DOC charges 1.2 cents per minute.
A coalition of groups, most involved in the Keeping Families Connected coalition, have written to the Berkshire, Bristol, and Franklin Sheriffs, asking them to bring the rates down and comply with the DTC order in their new contracts. Additionally, the coalition is working on legislation to lower phone costs and improve visitation in the state, along with other racial justice legislation. The bills are before the Ways and Means committee.
To contact legislators, go to: Take Action to Support Racial Justice Legislation.
Here are some excerpts from the Bristol letter, Keeping Families Connected Letter to Sheriff Hodgson June 26 2020:
At the end of June, Bristol County Sheriff’s Office contract with the Securus Technologies will expire – requiring a new contract negotiation. Nationwide, Securus is responsible for driving families into debt as they attempt to stay connected with their incarcerated loved ones. And while public reporting has exposed how Securus charges grossly inflated rates and fees – well beyond the $0.21 debit and $0.25 collect intrastate rate cap regulated by the Department of Telecommunications and Cable (DTC) – counties in Massachusetts continue to award the corporation egregiously high-cost prison and jail telecom contracts. We urge you to consider making calls free, or negotiate a contract with reasonable rates well within the DTC interim rate cap.
Amid global crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and the cascading economic downturn – families are struggling more than ever before. Massachusetts has the 4th highest rate of unemployment in the nation, a rate that is predicted to persist through 2021. With families facing altogether new forms of economic insecurity, the already-predatory rates charged by Securus are as unconscionable as they are cost prohibitive.
The groups signed on include: Prisoners’ Legal Services, Prison Policy Initiative, CORI & Re-entry Project of Greater Boston Legal Services, National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), The Real Cost of Prisons, and Worth Rises