At budget hearing, a plea to eliminate inmate phone call surcharge

TRENTON – While most of the testimony Tuesday before the Assembly Budget Committee concerned health services, there were other topics addressed as well.

One such issue concerned a probably little-known provision in the budget in which prison inmates are subject to a surcharge on collect calls, a practice some want to change.

Edward Martone, director of public education policy with the N.J. Association on Correction, pointed out to lawmakers that one in four inmates resides in a Cumberland County facility but hails from a northern urban town such as Newark, Paterson or elsewhere.

The $1.75 surcharge – above and beyond regular collect call charges – that the state insists phone companies collect, according to Martone, falls disproportionately on non-white inmates who make up more than 80 percent of the prison population.

He said that over the last few years, budgets have often anticipated such revenue in the neighborhood of from $3.5 million to $6 million a year.

He urged the lawmakers to “mandate that New Jersey contract for phones with the lowest rates for service, rather than the highest commission.’’

In addition, he said a bill, A1436, sponsored by Assembly members Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-15, Trenton, and Albert Coutinho, D-29, Newark, would address that issue.

And Coleman, who along with Coutinho sits on the budget committee, said, “We need a willingness on the part of our colleagues to recognize this is unfair.”

The bill, originally introduced in 2010, would bar the state from collecting phone revenue in excess of actual operating costs.

The state collects a 40 percent commission, as well as a $1.75 surcharge, on each inmate call, lawmakers were told. The revenue goes into the general fund.

Martone and the bill sponsors maintain that inmates who can have  regular contact with families are less likely to commit other crimes once released. 

At budget hearing, a plea to eliminate inmate phone call surcharge