By Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman
Politicians and social commentators have both criticized the “pay day” loan industry and check-cashing businesses as unfairly targeting low-income populations, by skirting usury laws to charge obscene rates that only a person with no other options would pay.
Many would probably be surprised to learn that the State of New Jersey is acting in the very same way when it comes to surcharges attached to telephone calls made from prison.
Making a collect call from prison is expensive because the prison telephone industry keeps a state-sanctioned monopoly over all calls made from prison, and because the state’s contract with the industry includes a commission.
A private vendor which provides phone service to all New Jersey prisons pays the state 40 percent of the fees the company charges for collect calls made by inmates. The state then allows this private vendor to charge outrageously high rates, which, according to one advocacy group, can cost some families nearly $400 a month.
The state is essentially taking a kickback from these inflated rates and passing the cost to the parents, wives and children of the incarcerated. It is absolutely obscene that a private vendor can charge fees that amount to a tax on children, grandmothers and families in crisis.
The fact that the state is a party to such exploitation is absolutely criminal. While the current administration is adamantly against the notion of taxing the rich, it seems taxing the poor, families in crisis and children is perfectly acceptable.
While study after study indicates that a prisoner who remains connected to his family and his children is less likely to re-offend, we continue to allow the high cost of collect calls from prison to impede such a connection.
If the state is truly interested in correcting the lives of those incarcerated – as the name of the Department of Corrections suggests – we must end the state’s role in the highly inflated costs of calls made from prison.
This practice is equivalent to price gouging, and it impacts those who have committed no crime and who cannot afford to be taken advantage of in this manner.
Equally worrisome, evidence suggests that when families are cut off from a loved one who is incarcerated, we all suffer since the offender is more likely to re-offend. Enough is enough.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering regulating the prison phone industry and imposing a price cap on long-distance prison telephone rates.
While this is good news, as a state, we should not wait to see whether the FCC finds this issue worthy of its attention. Parents, grandmothers and children of those incarcerated are being forced to choose between keeping their phones on (since the excessive charges from prison calls often lead to shut-off notices), or not communicating with their loved one; a choice that is really no choice at all.
We must work to ensure that New Jersey does not continue to tax the families of inmates through these charges. It is not only counter productive to the rehabilitation of those who are incarcerated, it is incredibly unjust.
Assemblywoman Watson Coleman is a Democrat who represents the 15th Legislative District in Mercer and Hunterdon counties.