Beacon Hill notes: Inmate calls for free

Businesses urge passage of Safe Communities Act

A BILL THAT WOULD ALLOW inmates at state and county correctional facilities to make phone calls for free was endorsed unanimously on Tuesday by the Legislature’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.

The bill is an attempt to address concerns raised by inmates and their families that phone calls are way over-priced, and designed primarily to benefit the correctional institutions.

Rates for a 15-minute local call range from 1.50 at state Department of Correction facilities to as high $6 at two county facilities. Many correctional institutions also receive connection charges for each call made, stipends, and commissions from their phone service operator.

The bill that emerged from the committee would allow inmates to make calls “at no cost to the prisoners or the receiving parties.” The bill’s sponsor, Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, filed a bill in 2016 calling for more affordable pricing for inmate phone calls, but that measure failed to pass.

The bill is likely to face opposition from country sheriffs, who rely on the phone service money to help balance their budgets. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said the charges also pay for the infrastructure needed to monitor inmate phone calls.

“Without these funds, the taxpayers will be faced with a bigger burden,” Hodgson said. In the past, Hodgson has said the bill’s passage would mean a loss of $750,000 a year in commission fees. The county also receives $820,000 upon the beginning of a new contract, which most recently was in 2018. Hodgson’s office charges $3.16 for the first minute of a phone call, and 16 cents for each subsequent minute.

Prisoners have filed a lawsuit against Hodgson’s office, alleging they are unfairly charged for phone calls while the county is making illegal profits.

Kevin Maccioli, the spokesman for the Middlesex County sheriff’s office, said the cost of calls was cut in 2016 from 21 cents a minute to 18 cents a minute. He said a connection charge was also eliminated.

Maccioli said the office hasn’t taken a position on Brownsberger’s bill, but he said Sheriff Peter Koutoujian believes “access to family and the availability of programming are both crucial to successful re-entry, as well as the operation of a safe facility.”

Prisoners’ Legal Services, which has testified in favor of the bill, lauded the body’s move on Tuesday. “The Committee recognizes that children of prisoners need to hear a parent’s’ voice, incarcerated people need family connections to succeed when they are released, and we all benefit from the healthier communities that result,” said staff attorney Bonnie Tenneriello.

Rep. Chynah Tyler of Roxbury filed a bill that would end commissions for correctional institutions and lower phone rates charged in those facilities. Her bill, which is in the Legislature’s Committee on the Judiciary, had its reporting date extended to May.

Businesses urge passage of Safe Communities Act

A group of business owners are calling on the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security to vote favorably on the Safe Communities Act, which limits when local law enforcement can work with federal immigration officials.

Over 75 businesses, organized under a banner called the Massachusetts Business Immigration Coalition, sent a letter to the House and Senate chairs of the committee urging them to report the legislation out before a bill reporting deadline passes.

The coalition’s stance on the legislation is not new, but the group’s letter highlights testimony from a number of prominent business leaders, including Tom O’Brien, a founding partner and managing director of HYM Investment Group; Thomas Hopcroft, who heads the 400-member Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council; George Matouk, CEO of the luxury linen company John Matouk, Inc.; and Nivia Pina, a co-owner of 3Islas Restaurant Group in Boston, which runs four well-known Latin restaurants in the Greater Boston area.

George Matouk of John Matouk Inc. a luxury linens company in Fall River, and Meg Glazer of construction management company Glacon Contracting testify in favor of the Safe Communities Act in January. (Phot by Sarah Betancourt)

O’Brien wrote that having local authorities involved in federal immigration policy “disrupts his workplace and spreads fear and anxiety in the labor market.” He argued that no company should lose a talented worker, whether it’s a scientist or delivery truck driver, because they feel unsafe or concerned over deportation.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Pina said she relies on workers from all over the world, and wants to make sure they feel welcome and are able to focus on their jobs. “State and local law enforcement does not have to work with the federal government and does not have to contribute to the climate of fear and confusion for families,” she wrote in the letter.

The bill would prevent police officers from questioning someone about their immigration status and bar them from notifying the Department of Homeland Security when someone is about to be released from custody unless their sentence is about to end. A final aspect of the bill would end 287g agreements, or the ability for the Department of Correction and county sheriffs to maintain contracts with ICE.