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NYC Makes Jail Phone Calls Free

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 10, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You may have heard you get one free phone call when you're arrested. You may not have heard how much phone calls from prison can cost after that, or how much cities, counties, and telecommunications companies are making off those calls.

One fewer city, however, will be profiting from jail phone calls. New York City is making phone calls from its jails free. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law eliminate the charges, and eliminating about $5 million per year in city revenue from such calls.

Ring Ring, From Sing Sing

The New York Times broke down some of the figures associated with the current calling regime:

Currently, calls from Rikers Island cost 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute to local numbers. There are 26,000 calls from the city's jails every day that generate more than $20,000 in daily revenue, according to an analysis by the Corrections Accountability Project, which advocated for the bill. The Department of Correction already provides free phone calls in certain circumstances: Indigent people could make three free phone calls per week, and sentenced inmates could make two per week.

The cost of phone calls from jail, especially for those who are in pre-trial detention and have yet to be convicted of a crime, has come under scrutiny recently, and an attempt by then-President Barack Obama's FCC to cap those fees stalled in 2016.

"It cost us a lot of money to call home," said Lawrence Bartley, who was released from prison three months ago, "for Christmas, for my kids' birthdays, helping them out, for moral support, being a father, to help them make decisions." Bartley claims his family spent thousands on phone calls during his 27-year sentence. Bianca Tylek, the director of the Corrections Accountability Project, told the Times the new law was a "game-changer." "People who are incarcerated, and especially people who are incarcerated pretrial without conviction, should be able to contact lifelines without cost," she said.

Can You Hear Me Now?

But not everyone is a fan of the change. Specifically, the correction officers' union, whose president Elias Husamudeen warned:

"Now the gangs will definitely be able to continue to run their operations from inside the jails. They will definitely be able to continue to communicate free of charge with the other members of their gangs who may not be in jail ... This is just one more nail in the coffin of creating safer jails, to be honest with you."

Whether that threat will materialize remains to be seen -- the law doesn't go into effect for another 270 days.

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