City jails now providing free phone calls as a criminal justice reform

Photo via Wikimedia Common

Two Queens lawmakers, and a Long Island City-based nonprofit organization, were pleased that free phone calls are now being provided to people in custody on Rikers Island and other city jails.  New York City became the first major city in the country to implement such a criminal justice reform.

“New York City should not profit off individuals in custody who are trying to stay connected to their loved ones, community and legal representation,” City Councilman Rory Lancman, Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice, said. “I was proud to co-sponsor City Council legislation to eliminate unjust fees on phone calls in city jails, and I’m glad to see the city has fully implemented our law.”

Lancman is one of the seven candidates currently running for Queens district attorney. Prior to the passage of Intro. 741-A, people in custody were charged 50 cents for the first minute and five cents for additional minutes for telephone calls. Now, the Department of Correction will cover the cost, allowing people to stay connected without having to utilize funding in their own commissary account. More than 25,000 calls are made daily from city jails.

“People in custody awaiting trial should not be subjected to unnecessary barriers to their defense or reintegration into society,” state Assemblyman David Weprin, Chair of the Committee on Correction, said. “By making phone calls from city jails no-cost, thousands of people will benefit by being able to stay in contact with their families and attorneys.”

People in general population will be able to make calls totalling 21 minutes every three hours to anywhere in the United States, including U.S. territories. The limit on single calls is 15 minutes. An internal digital clock in the phones tracks the duration of calls. Individuals in punitive segregation will be allowed a single daily call for up to 15 minutes.

“For too long have people in custody faced barriers to basic aspects of everyday life that can help create more humane jails,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “With free phone calls, we’re eliminating one of those barriers and ensuring that people in custody have the opportunity to remain connectected to their lawyers, families and support networks that are so crucial to re-entry into one’s community.”

At The Fortune Society, the Long Island City-based nonprofit that supports formerly incarcerated people re-integrate into their communities, helping them face the challenges such as accessing education, employment, affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, healthcare, and family issues, the implementation of free phone calls in the city’s prisons is a very big deal.

“At The Fortune Society, we know firsthand that human connection is a powerful tool in easing feelings of isolation and hopelessness during incarceration,” The Fortune Society President and CEO JoAnne Page said. “These free phone calls will have a direct and positive impact on the reentry process by giving everyone in jail better access to legal counsel, and helping them keep connected to family, friends, employers, landlords, doctors and others who comprise their important support networks. Removing cost-barriers for phone calls brings a new level of equity and humanity to our city’s jail system.”


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