NYC Guarantees Free Phone Calls for Inmates

New York, where three-quarters of inmates in city jails haven't been convicted, is the first city in the nation to do this.



A bill signed into law yesterday by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will allow all inmates in city jails to make free phone calls.

"This piece of legislation will ensure that no incarcerated person will have to pay to reach their loved ones on the phone and maintain crucial connections to the support networks key to their rehabilitation," de Blasio said in a statement.

In the 2017 fiscal year, 76 percent of NYC Department of Correction (DOC) inmates were pretrial detainees, meaning they had not yet been convicted. But unless they could pay up, their criminal status (or lack thereof) didn't matter. The New York Time reports:

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 DOC already allows some inmates to make calls free of charge. But the new law, which was approved by the city council in July and takes effect in nine months, makes New York the nation's first major city to guarantee free calls for all inmates.

The city estimated that in the 2019 fiscal year, it would collect about $5 million in revenue from inmate telephone fees. The city itself doesn't manage the phones in its jails. Instead, it contracts with Securus, a private company that rakes in about $2.5 million a year from the deal. According to the Times, NYC "will still likely pay a private company that amount."

Elias Husamudeen, president of the city's correction officers' union, is concerned the bill will allow gang leaders to maintain control even while incarcerated. "This is just one more nail in the coffin of creating safer jails, to be honest with you," he tells the Times.

But the law has garnered praise from prison reform advocates. "People who are incarcerated, and especially people who are incarcerated pretrial without conviction, should be able to contact lifelines without cost," Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project, tells the Times.

City council Speaker Corey Johnson, who sponsored the law, expressed similar sentiments. "No one should have to choose between speaking to their loved ones and paying the bills and I am proud to say that New Yorkers with loved ones who are incarcerated will no longer have to make this decision," Johnson said in a statement.