Mass. inmates' families protest high phone costs
BOSTON (AP) — Christine Duarte spends between $450 and $650 a month to talk to her husband while he awaits trial in a New Bedford jail.
The jail is located only about 15 minutes away from her home in Fall River, but her high phone charges are more fitting of a long-distance bill, she says.
‘‘If I pick up the phone and I talk to him for a minute, just 1 minute, they charge me $3,’’ Duarte said.
‘‘What a strain the phone puts on everybody. I'm sure if the phone was a lot cheaper, people would be able to stay more connected,’’ she said.
Duarte and family members of other inmates plan to testify Thursday during a hearing before the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable. The families have asked the department to investigate what they say are excessive telephone rates and poor quality phone service in state prisons and county jails.
Duarte said she pays a $3 surcharge every time her husband calls her from jail, regardless of the length of the call, plus a per-minute fee. She said that many times, the call will suddenly end, forcing her husband to call her back and pay another $3 charge. Every time she adds money to her phone calling card so that her husband can call her, she is charged a fee of $6.95, she said.
‘‘I have had nine dropped calls this past week,’’ she said. ‘‘Then he calls me back and it’s another $3, plus more.’’
Prisoners’ Legal Services and a private Boston law firm filed a petition to the department on behalf of inmates, their families, attorneys and other users of prison telephone service. They are asking the department to limit telephone rates and investigate the quality of phone service.
Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services, said the department sets the outer limits of what phone companies can charge to provide phone service inside jails and prisons, but the companies themselves set the rates. Under their contracts, the companies pay a commission back to the facilities. For state prisons, the commission goes back into the state’s general fund. For county jails, the commissions go to the counties and are used to help pay for the costs of running the jails.
‘‘Our position is that you should not be paying to run your correctional facility on the backs of these consumers,’’ Tenneriello said. ‘‘The vast majority are low-income people.’’
The two companies that provide phone services for most of the state prisons and county jails in Massachusetts are Securus Technologies of Dallas and Global Tel Link Corp., of Mobile, Ala. The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tenneriello said some inmate’s families have been unable to accept calls from their loved ones because they cannot pay the phone bills and still pay their rent and other monthly bills.
‘‘Family ties between a person who is incarcerated and their children, their spouse, their broader family — this has been shown to reduce recidivism. If you preserve those family ties, you can really increase the chances that someone will succeed when they get out of prison,’’ she said.