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New York is the first major city to allow free calls from jail

May 2, 2019

New York City is now the first major city to make phone calls free from jail, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced. The measure went into effect Wednesday after being passed last year by the city council.

"For too long have people in custody faced barriers to basic aspects of everyday life that can help create more humane jails," de Blasio said in a statement.

Those in custody were previously charged 50 cents for the first minute of a phone call, and five cents for any additional minutes. Now the Department of Correction will cover the cost of the more than 25,000 calls that are made from New York City jails, the city said. People in the general population will be able to make calls every three hours anywhere in the United States for a total of 21 minutes.

Under a new law spearheaded by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), Big Apple inmates are now entitled to 21 minutes of free phone privileges every three hours.

Individual calls can last up to 15 minutes each, and even dangerous prisoners locked up in solitary confinement get a single, daily call of up to 15 minutes.

The free calls can be made “during all lock-out periods” — when inmates are allowed out of their cells — and also on an “emergency” basis if a Department of Correction captain approves, according to the city. The policy permits calls to anywhere in the US and its territories, including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Island and American Samoa.

The DOC said it’s adding as many as 100 phones to the 530 already in place and will install even more if they’re needed for inmates to yak away to their hearts’ content. But the department also inexplicably claimed it expects only a 10 percent increase over the 25,000 calls per day that inmates made previously.

The law — which the city said was “fully implemented” two days early — eliminates charges that started at 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for every additional minute, paid for out of commissary accounts.

That money was formerly split between the city and telecom company Securus Technologies, with the city reaping about $5 million a year and Securus getting about $3 million. Under the new law, the city will forgo those revenues and also pay Securus to continue running the phone system.

The free phone-a-thon applies to both convicts serving time and pretrial detainees, who are all warned that their conversations can be monitored and recorded.

The DOC said it’s “sufficiently prepared” to handle the extra call volume, and the correction-officers union said the Intelligence Unit would keep tabs on all gang activity.

“Whether or not inmates are charged a fee for making a phone call is not our primary concern,” union chief Elias Husamudeen said. “Our main concern is ensuring no criminal activity is taking place that would compromise the security of our jails.”

Johnson said he was “proud” the council had passed his legislation, which he called 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.

The change in phone rules comes less than two months after Chanel Lewis, recently convicted of murdering Queens jogger Karina Vetrano, was transferred from Rikers Island to Long Island for abusing his phone privileges by calling 311 “multiple times a day.”

Another Rikers inmate, former “Jeopardy!” contestant Winston Nguyen, has twice used a jailhouse phone to chat with Mayor de Blasio during his weekly appearances on WNYC radio.

 

The Department of Correction said it was already providing free calls to those in custody on a limited basis. Detainees were allowed three calls a week and those sentenced got two calls a week. Phone calls to 311, legal aid and confidential informant lines were also free, according to the city.