State Supreme Court rules sheriff’s office can charge commissions from inmate calls

May 18, 2022

The Massachusetts Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 17 affirmed that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and his office have the authority to generate and collect revenue from inmate calling contracts.

Hodgson praised the ruling, calling it a “win for the taxpayers.”

"It has always been my belief as the Sheriff of Bristol County that one of my most fundamental responsibilities is to minimize the burden on taxpayers for the rising costs of prison operations,” he said.

The case stemmed from a 2018 lawsuit alleging the sheriff’s office was overcharging inmates on phone calls as part of an “illegal kickback scheme.”

Plaintiffs argued that since the sheriff’s office entered its agreement with Texas-based Securus Technologies in 2011, the private phone system nearly doubled the cost of telephone calls made to inmates in Bristol County jails.

In 2020, a US District Court judge ruled in favor of Hodgson, but the plaintiffs appealed to the State Supreme Court to have it decide whether a law passed in 2009 allows inmate phone call commissions. 

In its ruling, the Court stated that law does in fact allow sheriffs to raise office revenues through inmate calling service contracts.The Court also noted that the Legislature was aware of the “long standing” practice of collecting income from service providers even before the passage of the 2009 law.

“Had the Legislature intended to put an end to the sheriff’s practice of collecting inmate telephone revenues, it could have done so,” Chief Justice Kimberly Budd wrote. “If we were to adopt this interpretation, it would mean that the sheriff would be authorized to retain revenues that he is not authorized to collect in the first place. Such an illogical and unreasonable result cannot be what the Legislature intended.”

While the legislature has yet to pass any new laws abolishing the practice, a bill was introduced last year by State Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Roxbury) and State Sen. Cindy Creem (D-Newton) that would make phone calls free for all inmates.

The bill currently sits before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

A copy of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling is attached to this story.