An inmate makes a phone call from his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

The New York City Council voted this week to provide free telephone calls for anyone held in the city’s correctional facilities. The move will save New York City inmates and their families an estimated US$8 million a year.

Until this law takes effect, phone services in the city’s jails will continue to be provided by Securus Technologies which, like other private companies, charges inmates and their families, the ultimate ‘captive customers’, at higher than average rates.

Currently, Securus charges an initial fee of 50 cents, plus 5 cents per minute for calls within New York, as well as fees for depositing funds. The cost of calls can quickly become prohibitive. With black people and Latinos making up over 86% of inmates in New York City, communities of color primarily bear these high costs. Many already lived in poverty before their arrests, and are held in pre-trial detention simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

The new law will also prohibit the city from making revenue for itself on phone call fees. City government had a revenue sharing agreement with Securus, which guaranteed the city at least $5 million in income each year.

Phone calls provide an important link between people in custody and their families. Inmates that maintain family ties have an easier re-entry process, and may be less likely to reoffend. Children also benefit from having regular contact with parents in prison. The city should not look to raise revenues by charging people for these vital connections, nor should low income families be forced to sacrifice basic necessities to pay for calls.

Last year, a court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission cannot set caps on the cost of in-state prison phone calls, leaving it to each state and local jurisdiction to set the fees. New York City is among the first jurisdictions to eliminate fees altogether, and prohibit revenue sharing contracts. In the absence of national legislation, other cities and states should follow suit. People in custody should be able to stay in touch with their families without paying an exorbitant price.