“The SJC ruling makes clear that it’s up to the Legislature to prevent the Sheriff from charging families exorbitant telephone fees to fund the costs of running the Jail.”
As we reported last month in a feature titled “Mass Is Still Gouging Prisoners On Phone Fees,” reporter Ashley Pettus noted, “inflated phone call fees in Massachusetts prisons and jails stem from telecom contracts that have long prioritized revenues and kickbacks over affordability. The DOC and the county sheriff’s departments receive commission payments from service providers based on per-minute rates and call volumes.”
We’ve also covered Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, whose facility shows up in that feature and who the groups Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability recently pointed out presides over a facility where “more than 30 people have died behind bars in the last 10 years,” some “because of substance withdrawal and others by suicide.”
Along with others, in 2018 Prisoners’ Legal Services brought a lawsuit against Hodgson over the phone fee issue. The resulting decision is far from optimal, as this week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) “affirmed that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is legally authorized to collect revenues for his office through phone service fees.”
It’s not a total lost cause, as lawmakers still have a chance to give prisoners free phone calls, but it’s nevertheless a setback for advocates. A media statement on the matter released by PLS follows:
The court’s affirmation follows a legal battle that began in May 2018 when Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLS), the National Consumer Law Center, and private attorneys brought a class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Hodgson and the telephone contractor Securus Technologies, alleging that payments from the contractor to the sheriff’s office constituted illegal kickbacks because the Sheriff lacks the legislative authority to receive these payments.
Kickbacks from this arrangement have effectively doubled the price of telephone calls for family members, loved ones, and attorneys who accepted telephone calls from people in any of the Bristol County jails.
Sheriff Hodgson argues that the SJC’s decision is “a win for taxpayers,” because the current arrangement where prisoners and their families pay for communications will persist. Currently one in three families with an incarcerated loved one falls into debt trying to stay connected through calls and visits. And this financial burden is disparately carried by low-income communities. Families spend $14.4 million each year to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones, and prisons and jails take roughly $4.8 million of that in commissions, according to the non-profit Worth Rises.
Last month, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed its budget, which would make communication from prisons and jails free like in Connecticut, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among other places. The Massachusetts Senate is currently considering a similar measure in its own budget.
“The SJC ruling makes clear that it’s up to the Legislature to prevent the Sheriff from charging families exorbitant telephone fees to fund the costs of running the Jail,” PLS Litigation Director James Pingeon said in the statement. “Excessive charges undermine family connections that are essential to successful reentry. For this reason, it is now more important than ever for the Legislature to pass the No Cost Call bill that will end the profiteering and predatory practices of correctional officials and prison telecom companies.”