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Citizenship

Prisoners in New York City Can Now Make Calls for Free

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Phone calls allow prisoners to seek legal help and speak with loved ones, establishing pathways for rehabilitation. The United Nations’ Global Goals call on countries to establish justice systems that prioritize rehabilitation and reform. You can join us on taking action on this issue here.

Prisoners in New York City no longer have to use their scant funds to call their loved ones and lawyers, according to the New York Times.

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the law on Aug. 6, putting to end the annual collection of more than $5 million in inmate telephone fees.

“Unfortunately, the city has been profiting from some of the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers for years,” Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker and sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “Thankfully, that is now going to stop.”

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New York City inmates make around 26,000 calls every day, generating more than $20,000 in daily revenue, according to Corrections Accountability Project.

At Rikers Island, each call costs 50 cents for the first minute, and 5 cents for each subsequent minute to local numbers, which is often too steep a cost for inmates, who generally earn less than $1 per hour if they’re able to find work.

As a result, a 10-minute phone call would cost $1.40, a sizable chunk of a day’s wages. Prison reform advocates say that this amounts to a form of extortion.

The new rule will go into effect in 270 days, the Times reports, and is part of a broader series of reforms. On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio announced that voter registration will be made more accessible to inmates.

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"Voting is the most basic American right, and we must take every opportunity to increase access to this right for all people,” Speaker Johnson said.

Throughout the US, industries that profit off prisoners, including for-profit prisons themselves, have been under increasing scrutiny.

The detention of immigrants and asylum seekers, for instance, has recently grown into a billion-dollar industry. Many for-private prisons deny inmates adequate meals and amenities, and jails throughout the country often harvest money intended for inmate food for private purchases such as real estate.

Inmate retail services, meanwhile, have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry and often limit the dietary choices of inmates to junk food.

For-profit prisons funded by federal dollars had been scheduled to be phased out through an order by the Obama-era justice department, but that decision was reversed under the Trump administration.

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Since then, private prison stocks have thrived.

Critics of New York City’s elimination of phone fees include the city’s correction officers union, which claims that easier access to phone calls enables inmates to conduct more criminal activity.

Advocates, meanwhile, say this is merely a long overdue human rights issue in a country with draconian incarceral laws.

“People who are incarcerated, and especially people who are incarcerated pretrial without conviction, should be able to contact lifelines without cost,” Bianca Tylek, the director of the Corrections Accountability Project, told the Times.

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Prison can be an extremely isolating, lonely experience, and letters, visits from loved ones, and phone calls can act as simple sources of hope. In fact, prisoners who communicate with family members are less likely to go back to prison.

“It cost us a lot of money to call home, for Christmas, for my kids’ birthdays, helping them out, for moral support, being a father, to help them make decisions,” Lawrence Bartley, a former prisoner and program assistant with the Corrections Accountability Project, told the Times.

“I spent a lot of time just dreaming about the moment to get on the call with her,” he said. “Without her, I don’t know if I would have ever made it home.”