Pubdate: Wed, 17 Jan 2007
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2007 Newsday Inc.
Author: Sheryl McCarthy
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


In the end, all it took was the word of the governor to get rid of a 
prison phone system that exploited the families of prison inmates.

That's what Eliot Spitzer did on his eighth day in office. After 
years of public protests, intense lobbying in Albany, marches to the 
office of former Gov. George Pataki, introducing bills that went 
nowhere and a lawsuit that is still wending its way through the state 
courts, the governor took decisive action. He announced last week 
that he was directing the state's budget division to no longer count 
on the $16 million in yearly commissions it has been receiving out of 
the phone company's excessive profits.

"It was a no-brainer," said Cheri O'Donaghue, who with her husband 
has been paying $300 to $400 a month to receive collect phone calls 
from their son, who's incarcerated at the Woodbourne Correctional 
Facility in upstate Sullivan County.

"It was just a matter of having someone who had some compassion and 
who would just do it and, thankfully, we have a new administration 
that feels that way," she said.

The end of the 10-year contract - under which the phone company paid 
57 percent of its profits to the state Department of Correction - 
means that as of April 1, the cost of a 20-minute collect phone call 
from a state prison inmate to his family or loved ones will be cut in 
half, from about $6.20 to about $3.

"The governor's position is that the state shouldn't be receiving a 
commission on services that it offers," his spokesman told me.

For the last seven years, I've been writing about this oppressive 
phone system that was part of a monopoly agreement with MCI, which is 
now known as Verizon Business. The company charged regular phone 
users about 3 to 5 cents a minute, but charged state prison inmates a 
$3 connection fee and 16 cents a minute. They were also required to 
make collect calls only. Now the state will have to replace the money 
from the phone commissions with general funds.

"I'm elated and relieved," said O'Donaghue, a magazine editor whose 
son is serving a 7- to 21-year sentence under the Rockefeller drug 
laws for the attempted sale of cocaine to an undercover officer.

State correction officials rationalized the phone system's expense 
because the phone company commission went to pay for family and 
inmate services, such as nurseries for women in prison, medical 
treatment for inmates with AIDS and family reunification programs, 
and claimed it also paid for the extra security costs of maintaining 
a prison phone system.

But the burden of paying for these prison services fell not on the 
correction department, but the inmates' families. And few people 
seemed to care.

It was as if, "Well, it's just prisoners, so make their families pay."

Nor did the costs of securing the prison phone calls justify the 
charges. The federal prison system gives inmates access to calls for 
about 7 cents a minute. City detainees on Rikers Island use a debit 
system, whereby the cost of phone calls is deducted from their 
commissary accounts. Both systems are much cheaper than New York State's.

Annette Dickerson, who coordinated the Campaign for Telephone Justice 
for the Center for Constitutional rights, said she was pleased by 
Spitzer's actions. Several years ago, the center filed a lawsuit in 
state court, challenging the phone system on behalf of the 65,000 
state prison inmates. Last week, the state Court of Appeals heard 
oral arguments in an appeal of a lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, bills introduced in the State Legislature to abolish the 
commission system passed the Assembly for two years straight, but 
died in the Senate, primarily because the legislators didn't want to 
have to come up with money to replace the phone company funds.

Assemb. Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Corona), who sponsored the assembly bills, 
said he was delighted when he was summoned to the governor's office 
on Tuesday and given the news. The chairman of the assembly 
correction committee, Aubrion told me he'd also like to see the state 
improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates, many of whom are held 
in 23-hour-a-day lockdown with few mental health services. And 
further reforms are needed to the still-onerous Rockefeller drug laws.

But ending the injustice of the prison phone system was an auspicious 
start for the new governor.
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