New Jersey Phone Rates Out of Control

by Gary Hunter

Two calls a week from her incarcerated son costs Marjorie Arniotis over $150 per month. Lorraine Green pays around $200 a month to talk to her imprisoned son and was paying more until one of her sons was acquitted in January 2006.

New Jersy jails and prisons have long been criticized for the outrageous cost of prisoner-to-family phone services. Its rates are among the highest in the nation.

"[Prisoner's] families overpay enormously," said prisoner advocate Bonnie Kerness. "New Jersey is particularly egregious because the charges don't even go to the welfare of inmates. They benefit the State's Treasury Department."

Kerness, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, calls the phone rates morally unjustifiable.

Under the current system, phone payments are divided between the phone companies and the state entities that control the prisons and jails.

County and state governments controlling the lock-ups receive as much as 40% commission from phone services so there is little incentive to lower rates.

"It's outrageous," Said Arniotis. "I wish someone could do something about it."

State officials feel differently. "It's nice and refreshing to give back and offset some of the burden on taxpayers," said Morris County Jail Warden Frank Corrente. "It's not like we can take the money and spend it on new cars. The money goes to inmate use."

Government officials estimate that the phone revenue is only a fraction of the approximately $30,000 necessary to incarcerate a prisoner for one year.

But Kerness points out that prisoner's families are taxpayers too and ultimately the family pays the bill.

"Why would you want to penalize a family member of an inmate in any way?" she asked. "They are innocent."

Dana Kaplan, of Prison Families Community Forum (PFCF) calls the current practice legal kickbacks.

"This is unlegislated tax," she said.

PFCF is a New York based advocacy group that is trying to eliminate collect calls in prisons altogether. The group has introduced, to the legislature, alternative plans with lower rates. Prepaid accounts is currently on a bill that is awaiting consideration.

Joseph Pekarovic is vice president of sales at Public Communications Services Inc. (PCS), the California based phone company handles services for more than 270 county jails and state and federal prisons including the Bergen County jail near Hackensack, N.J. Pekarovic, explains why "collect calls will always be high."

Collect calls can pose several problems. Pekarovic estimates that one in five collect calls, originating from prisoners, cannot be collected due to fraud. He says that collect calls are often placed to newly installed phones then, after prisoners and their outside parties run up large phone bills, the owner of the phone will move. Those losses are passed along to the customers.

Pekarovic also explains that collect calls involve complications when the caller and the person receiving the call use different carriers. This scenario requires the two companies to negotiate a rate to be charged to the person receiving the call. None of which explains the phone company kickback to the prisons and jails which is done after the companies make their profits. In an ideal capitalist world, contracts are bid out to who can provide the best service at the lowest cost. Instead, the winning bid goes to who can give the state the biggest kickback in exchange for the prison and jail phone monopoly.

New Jersey is not the only state under fire, by prisoner advocates, for outrageous phone bills. North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington State are working on plans to implement alternative calling systems.

Florida has already agreed to reduce their profit margin for calls from prisoners to ease the burden on their families.

Virginia recently came under fire from the state-based Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) group after legislators-reneged on an agreement to substantially reduce phone rates for outgoing prison calls. Like New Jersy, Virginia officials receive kickbacks of up to 40% of phone revenues.

New Jersey did recently attempt to restructure its own system with limited success. The in-state calls that used to cost prisoners $9.00 are now $7.75. Fifteen-minute calls out-of-state dropped from $17 to $15.

Prisoner advocate groups complain that the reduction is not enough. They point out that the enormously high rates increase recidivism.

"Study after study has shown that better contact with family members is important," said Kerness. "We ought to be doing everything possible to encourage that."

Unregulated phone rates also adversely affect prisoners? ability to defend themselves in court. New Jersey's Public Defender's Office had to stop accepting collect calls in 1992.

"Our phone bills were $23,000 a month," said policy director Dale Jones.

Prisoner phone revenue for 2005 exceeded $5 million. New Jersey state prisons top the list with revenues of $3.5 million generated by its 23,000-plus population.

Passic County Jail, (pop. 1,800), earned $680,000; Hudson County Jail (pop. 2,000) made $518,000; Bergen County Jail, (pop. 1,000) took in $411,000; and Morris County Jail (pop. 325) earned $65,000.

Connection fees varied from $1.26 to $1.75 for local calls to $3.95 for out-of-state calls. All out-of-state calls are 89 cents a minute, not including the connection fee.

A House subcommittee is currently reviewing a federal bill that will require regulation of rates for prisoner phone calls. The bill was introduced in December 2005 and is still pending.