Families want to end prison phone call charges

They say steep costs burden efforts to maintain crucial connection

AYANA AUBOURG MET her father Winchel Aubourg as an infant while he was behind bars for a drug-related crime. For the next 17 years, she spoke with him over the phone, and occasionally visited while he was held in facilities in Massachusetts and New Jersey. “You have no idea what receiving those phone calls meant for me,” Aubourg, now 25, told members of the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus at a briefing on Tuesday.

The conversations were invaluable, she said, but they came at a steep cost. Inmates are charged for prison phone calls, and Aubourg said typical charges for two 20-minute calls each week from a prison inmate can approach $2,000 a year.

State Sen. William Brownsberger is looking to change that. The Senate co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary has introduced a bill to eliminate all charges for inmate phone calls.

Brownsberger introduced a similar bill in 2016, which failed to advance, that called for more affordable pricing for inmate phone services. His new bill goes further to say that telephone services should 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.”

Brownsberger said charges for prison calls has become a hot-button issue connected to the cost of corrections. “People want money to run their prisons,” he said of the attitude of some corrections officials. Brownsberger said “it’s just wrong” to charge inmates for phone calls when they already pay parole and probation fees when released, and other bills.

Aubourg recalls her father talking though edits her personal essay for college by phone, and encouraging her to seek out a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she was interested in learning more about the biotech industry in high school.

She said she was on the phone with her father while roaming the hallways at MIT looking for the professor’s office. “I would have never been able to muster up the courage to do that if it wasn’t for him being on the line with me,” she said.

Ayanna Aubourg with her father, Winchel Aubourg, who was released from prison on house arrest right after her high school graduation. (Courtesy from family)

Her father, who was released a month before her high school graduation, died two years later in a car accident.

For him, she said, and for other prisoners, the calls “keep them sane.” Aubourg now she works with the organization Families for Justice in Healing to advocate for other families with incarcerated members.

The Department of Correction would not comment on the legislation.

Securus Technologies, the company that holds the contract for state prison inmate phone service, said it has no position on the bill or the broader question of whether inmates should be charged for the phone services the firm contracts with correctional facilities to provide.

Massachusetts state prisons under the Department of Correction offer phone calls for 10 to 11 cents per minute under the Securus contract, but in county houses of correction and jails, where Securus also has many of the contracts, the rates can vary greatly. A 15-minute phone call can cost as much as $6.15.

Under the contracts, the charges to inmates also include a commission that correctional facilities retain.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says while Brownsberger’s bill is well-meaning, he disagrees with it. “Here’s a simple alternative: Don’t come here. Stay out of jail and leave people in your neighborhood alone,” said. Hodgson suggested the Legislature “come in” and see that there’s a cost associated with running a phone system, adding that if the bill were to pass, it would mean a loss of $750,000 a year in commission fees. Hodgson says the revenue from calls gets used to help cover costs of his operations. Hodgson said if prisoners don’t pay for the calls, state taxpayers will.

On the potential burden to taxpayers, Brownsberger said, “It’s part of a larger budget conversation about the cost of corrections.”

According to Prisoners’ Legal Services, while eliminating charges for inmate calls would impose a cost on the state, without commissions and the need to track or recover charges to consumer accounts, the state would be able to contract for a much lower rate than currently, thus saving money.

Nehemie Sans-Souci hopes something will be done soon. Sans-Souci talks to her husband, William Lane, every day during his incarceration at MCI-Norfolk. His release date is in 2023. She says she pays $2.94 for 20 minutes a day, but often speaks to Lane more. She calculated her Securus bill from August 2018 to August 2019 to be more than $6,000. “I think for families struggling, this is too much,” Sans-Souci said.

To make phone calls from a prison or county correctional facility, inmates must set up a phone account, sometimes including an upfront fee, pay a fee each time they deposit funds in their accounts, which only takes $50 at a time. There are monthly maintenance charges, and occasional per-call surcharges, which are charged again if there are dropped calls. In some contracts, recipients must pay a fee to hear voicemails.

Bristol and Middlesex counties responded to requests for information on call rates, with Bristol saying that the cost per minute for an inmate call is 16 cents. At Middlesex facilities, the cost was reduced last year from 21 cents per minute to 18 cents. Middlesex sheriff’s office spokesman Kevin Maccioli said the county also eliminated the connection charge in 2016.

Maccioli said the office hasn’t taken a position on Brownsberger’s bill, but 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.”

Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton called the high price of phone calls “an outrage,” saying it harms prisoner rehabilitation and “harms maintaining social connections. He said he recently spoke with a family that spent $20,000 in a single year on phone charges.

Bianca Tylek, executive director of the prison reform group Worth Rises said that pricing used to be much lower before companies like Securus started conducting business in the early 2000s. Her organization is trying to change that. “In New York City, we led a campaign where we passed the first piece of legislation in the country to make all calls out of city jails free,” she said.

Jade Trombetta, a spokeswoman for JPay, the subsidiary that handles payments for Securus, said that the company “understands the power of human connection and is committed to making phone calls more affordable,” and also said that the company’s experience in New York City “would be relevant in Massachusetts if the legislation is approved.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

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.

With an annual revenue of $700 million, Securus has about 40 percent of the national prison phone call market.

Bills have also been filed in New York State and Connecticut to remove all inmate charges for prison calls, and Tylek says she expects similar legislation to be filed in a dozen more states by the end of 2020.