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City Council passes bill to provide free phone calls to Rikers inmates

Brooklyn Defender Services and other reform advocates rejoice

July 19, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A bill introduced by City Councilmember Justin Brannan and speaker Corey Johnson was passed on Wednesday that prohibits the city from charging inmates for phone calls, which was seen as overly punitive to the poor by criminal justice reform groups. AP file photo
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The days of being price gouged by the minute for phone calls is largely a thing of the past for most New Yorkers, but not for Rikers Island inmates. However, that is about to change as City Council passed a bill on Wednesday to end the practice of charging inmates for domestic phone calls.

“Unfortunately, the city has been profiting from some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers for years, and that’s going to stop,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who sponsored the legislation alongside Councilmember Justin Brannan.

“Families and friends of incarcerated individuals should not have to choose between hearing from their loved ones and paying their bills just because they cannot afford to pay for overpriced phone calls,” Johnson continued. “Studies have shown that enabling people in jail to stay in touch with their communities improves outcomes and reduces recidivism.”

Phone calls from Rikers Island cost inmates 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute, according to Securus Technologies, a company that provides phone services at Rikers. Additional fees are collected to deposit money into inmates’ accounts.

There are 26,000 phone calls made each day, according to Corrections Accountability Project at the Urban Justice Center, so costs add up quickly. Revenue generated from those calls is more than $8 million per year with the city taking $5 million of that, according to the Department of Corrections.

“As advocates for the elimination of financial profits from the injustice system, we welcome the City Council’s passage of legislation to ban city revenue from jail phone calls and make these calls free for people and their loved ones,” said a joint statement issued by Brooklyn Defender Services and other advocates.

“Thousands of people in NYC jails are there solely because a court set money bail beyond what they could afford, 88 percent are black and/or Latinx, and nearly all experience deep poverty,” the statement continued. “Now, they will be able to maintain crucial lifelines to loved ones in the community without sacrificing scarce dollars for the profits of jail profiteer Securus.”

As of February, there were more than 9,000 people per day in Rikers Island. According to the Department of Corrections, 76 percent of those people are awaiting trial. According to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office, roughly 40 percent of all inmates are there simply because they could not afford bail.

The bill also keeps the city from collecting any revenue for providing telephone services and prohibits commissions from the telephone provider. It is awaiting a signature from Mayor Bill de Blasio before it becomes law. It will automatically become law after 30 days if he does not sign or veto it.


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