New York Is the First Major U.S. City to Allow Free Jail Phone Calls to Create More 'Humane Jails'

New York City has become the first major city in the nation to allow people in jail to make free phone calls, in a new measure Mayor Bill de Blasio says will help incarcerated persons re-enter their communities after serving time.

“For too long have people in custody faced barriers to basic aspects of everyday life that can help create more humane jails,” de Blasio, 57, said in the announcement on Wednesday. “With free phone calls, we’re eliminating one of those barriers and ensuring that people in custody have the opportunity to remain connected to their lawyers, families and support networks that are so crucial to re-entry into one’s community.”

The measure was passed by the city council last year and went into effect on Wednesday.

Up until now, people in custody were charged 50 cents for the first minute of a phone call and 5 cents for each additional minute. Now, they can make free calls up to 21 minutes every three hours, anywhere in the country — with the city’s Department of Correction covering those to friends and loved ones.

According to the announcement, more than 25,000 are made in New York City jails each day and the measure will help people stay connected with their families and loved ones without using funds from their commissary account.

A recent study from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group, found that the cost of phone calls in county and city jails across the country negatively impacts those in custody awaiting trial.

“High phone rates impact everyone in jail, but those worst affected are people detained pretrial because they cannot afford bail,” said Alexi Jones, co-author of the study. “When someone has to organize their defense from jail, the cost of phone calls becomes extremely limiting, and that ultimately makes our justice system less fair.”

The majority of people in the city’s jails have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial, according to the Associated Press.

High phone rates also hurt those in custody who rely on public defenders, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In a 2013 letter to the Federal Communications Commission, the Missouri State Public Defenders wrote that offices often fund these phone calls, costing them tens of thousands of dollars a year.

This, they wrote, “reduces our ability to communicate with our clients about their cases, diminishes the quality of representation we are able to provide, and thus risks denying clients their Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel.”

In states like California, it can cost up to $17.80 to make a 15-minute phone call from a local jail, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In New York City, the highest cost  for a 15-minute is nearly $10.

Despite studies that detail the predatory nature of the prison phone system, those who oppose the new measure have said free phone calls could aid gang operation in the jails. 0, said the union is concerned with deterring criminal activity inside the jails, according to the AP.

Still, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has called the legislation a “common sense measure.”

“It’s a fact that incarcerated individuals have a greater chance of rehabilitation when they are in touch with their community,” he said in the city’s announcement. “But for too long, our jails charged people for making simple phone calls, which created serious problems for those in our system with limited means.”


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