Costly connections

Bill would eliminate $11 million in prison phone revenue

AFTER 10 YEARS behind bars, Jurrell Laronal looks back and remembers calls to his partner and stepchildren as one of the few things that kept him sane while bouncing between maximum and medium security prisons in Massachusetts.

 “It’s everything,” he said toweling off after a workout at his workplace, Quincy’s Crossfit Trifecta MMA. “When you’re locked up, you can’t release what’s bottled up. And if you can’t make the call and have that connection, you’re lost.”

Jurrell Laronal, who is formerly incarcerated, is a a current advocate for free phone calls. Here he works out at Quincy’s Crossfit Trifecta MMA. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

The biggest barrier to making a prison phone call is the cost, with the price of a five-minute call, including various fees and per-minute charges, ranging from a low of 50 cents at state Department of Correction facilities to as much as $6 at the Franklin and Berkshire County jails.

The two private phone companies that provide the service pay the jails hefty commissions and make annual minimum payments, which totaled $11 million in 2019, according to documents obtained through a year of public records requests. The 2,000 pages of documents, including checks, budgets, and contracts with the three leading prison phone providers – Securus,Global Tel Link, and IC Solutions,– indicate $7.4 million was paid out in commissions in 2019 on inmate phone calls and another $3.6 million was provided in minimum payments.

Sheriffs, who were sent a survey asking how they used the money, said they rely on the phone call funds to cover their operating costs and some of their programming.

Now Beacon Hill lawmakers are threatening to blow that system up. A bill sponsored by Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont reported out of committee on Monday would require that telephone services be provided to prisoners in state Department of Correction facilities and county houses of correction “at no cost to the prisoners or the receiving parties.”

Advocates for inmates are pushing hard for passage of the legislation this week. “It is a cruel irony that the families who are disproportionately policed, arrested, and incarcerated are the same families paying for the costs to not only speak with their loved ones, but to actually fund their incarceration,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services.

Prison officials say the inmates will be the ones to suffer unless the state steps up with more funding. In Worcester, Superintendent David Tuttle said he relies on phone commissions to balance his budget. Without the phone money ($352,844 in 2019) or additional state funding to replace it, he said, seven mental health clinicians and a doctor as well as a culinary arts program would just disappear. “It would be a shame to tell these men to just sit in their cells and do nothing all day,” he said.

At the Hampden County Jail, which earned a 2019 commission total of $758,000 (the highest in the state) and a $850,000 signing bonus, inmate call proceeds went to fund a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus from downtown Springfield to the Ludlow jail.

Daniel Sheridan, an assistant supervisor for the Berkshire County sheriff’s office, said he is tired of sheriffs being painted as the bad guys. “I am incensed when I hear pundits with no real knowledge of corrections speak of ‘prison profiteering,’” he said, noting that the $71,000 the jail receives in phone commissions goes toward prisoner services, including state ID cards for inmates who have no form of identification when they’re released, post-incarceration housing for former prisoners with no place to live, and motivational speakers to talk about addiction.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said Brownsberger’s bill is well-meaning, but he disagrees with it. “Here’s a simple alternative: Don’t come here. Stay out of jail and leave people in your neighborhood alone,” he said in an interview in October.

Hodgson said the revenue from calls helps cover his operating costs. If prisoners don’t pay for the calls, he said, state taxpayers will.

Brownsberger’s legislation on prison phone calls is silent on where the money for the phone systems will come from. “It’s part of a larger budget conversation about the cost of corrections,” he said during an interview this spring.

One thing that isn’t often noted in prison phone call debate is that the incarcerated population in Massachusetts has decreased over the years, despite sheriff’s spending more money on staffing and overhead.  A report from MassINC found that correctional spending in the state had increased $181 million over five years. But county and state prison populations dropped 21 percent from 2011 to 2018.

Staffing in sheriffs’ departments increased during that time period (although it dropped by more than 10 percent at the Department of Correction). Salaries for staff went up by at least 17 percent over the years.

Laronal, who has become an advocate for doing away with phone charges, said inmate families should not be saddled with the high cost of calls. “It’s not right because you have people not being able to talk to their loved ones,” he said.

Cecilia Hamilton, a 49-year-old Boston mom whose son was incarcerated at the Plymouth County Jail for almost five years, remembers spending around $8.40 a call, $60 a week, and $300 a month on phone calls. “The high rates are extreme,” she said. “And I find all these kickbacks and commissions to be really extreme.”

Matos from Prisoners Legal Services said high phone charges lead to higher recidivism rates. “It’s counter to all of the things we know we must do as a society, invest in rehabilitation, in successful reentry and lowering recidivism and in lifting up, not further burdening, black and brown families,” she said.

Jade Trombetta, a spokeswoman for JPay, the subsidiary that handles payments for Securus, said the company is neutral on the Brownsberger legislation and on the broader question of whether telecommunications services should be subsidized by taxpayers or borne by consumers.

She said the company works with each state agency and county to address “their specific needs, and each location is different.” She said the company is proud to work with New York City, which provides phone calls at no-cost to incarcerated individuals, and that the firm is “happy to accommodate that model with any of our current customers.”

With an annual revenue of $700 million, Securus has about 40 percent of the national prison phone call market. Global Tel Link, the other major company in the business, controls around 50 percent.

During the past four months, access to phone calls at Massachusetts prison facilities has been somewhat limited, as most prisoners have been required to remain in their cells for up to 23 hours a day to reduce the spread of coronavirus. But that doesn’t erase the memory of spending $400 a month for phone calls, as was the case for Jamilee Young, whose husband Chancellor and brother-in-law are at Souza Baranowski, a maximum-security prison in Shirley.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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 long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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.

Having just lost her job at a dentist’s office due to coronavirus, Young is worried about being able to pay that phone bill in addition to the rest of her expenses.

As a single mother, she said, she wants Chancellor to remain in touch with his four children until he’s released in a couple of years. “The kids get in a panic if we don’t call him,” she said.