Opinion: A response to Hodgson's claim of the SJC decision
To the editor:
Sheriff Hodgson’s big claim to victory in the recent Supreme Judicial Court decision is not at all what he says it is. While billing it as a “benefit to taxpayers”, Hodgson obscures the fact that the court simply ruled that given the current language in state statute, it is legal for Sheriffs and the Department of Correction to collect site commissions, also known as “legal kickbacks,” from the prison telecom corporation, Securus. Ironically, Hodgson and four other sheriffs gave up their commissions voluntarily after the lawsuit was filed, though Hodgson is still getting $100,000 per year from Securus under the guise of a “technology grant.”
But just because these commissions are legal, does not make them legitimate. Right now, thousands of families are paying inflated costs that go straight into the pockets of one of the biggest prison telecom companies in the country. The world is upside down when struggling families, mostly headed by women and women of color, have to spend 14 cents a minute just to check in with their loved ones – far more than the cost of an ordinary phone call.
Furthermore, none of the sheriffs of the 14 counties, nor the Department of Correction, have had to account for how they spent this commission money. But the cost is even greater when you think of the alienation, anxiety, and depression that occurs when people can’t afford to speak with their families.
A key fact to know: 95% of individuals held in prisons and jails will eventually return home. Therefore, it is incumbent on all jails and prisons to make sure that people returning home are given the chance to succeed outside the walls. Key to that success is maintaining strong family ties. Strong ties can lead to more people permanently staying out of jail, rather than being part of the revolving door that we see in the Bristol County House of Correction and Jail.
Family members and advocates have been working to change this situation by supporting legislation that would institute free phone calls in all Massachusetts prisons and jails — House bill 1900 and Senate bill 1559. In addition, Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Roxbury) championed the language passed in the House budget that would guarantee the right to free communication and a new fund to pay for the cost of calls ($3.5 million); Sheriffs and Department of Correction can get reimbursed for what they actually spend to provide phone service. The legislation and budget language also calls for the elimination of any site commissions.
Sen. Cynthia Creem filed amendment #990 to write free communication into the Senate budget.
As Ms. Ann Smith, whose brother is incarcerated in the Bristol County House of Correction, pointed out, “Myself and my 90 year old mother are both on fixed incomes so it is a financial strain for us to pay $10 every time we want to speak to my brother. What do large families with little money when they can’t afford the calls? Does that mean kids have no chance to speak to their parent or relative at all?”
Marlene Pollock, Member of Bristol County for Correctional Justice,