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For the friends and families of New York State prison inmates, this week’s adjournment of the state legislature brought a familiar frustration. They hoped that the Senate would pass the Family Connections Bill, legislation to lower the steep collect-call prices they pay when incarcerated loved ones call home. But last week, the bill was sent back to the Senate Finance Committee for the third time since January instead of being brought up for a full Senate vote.

As a result, many financially strapped New Yorkers will continue to pay more than residents of any other state — $3 to connect and 16 cents per minute — to talk to their family members behind bars. “We are sensitive to the cost burden placed on inmates’ families,” said Verizon spokesperson Stefanie Scott, “but we are abiding by the stipulations of the contract MCI made with the state in 2000.” Verizon, the telephone carrier for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, bought MCI in January of this year.

According to Verizon, one reason for the high price of these phone calls is the high cost of security technology to monitor and record inmate communications. Another reason is the amount of commission taken by the state. The state corrections department refused to comment, but referred to a 2003 department press release on rates still in effect today. “Inmates completed nearly 7 million collect-only calls between September 2001 and August 2002, generating gross revenues exceeding $39 million,” the release says. “The Department’s commission rate is 57.5 percent on those revenues.” Less than a third of the commissions are funneled to inmate family-related programs; the rest is spread throughout other state departments.

Missouri prisons have the lowest prison collect-call rates in the nation — at $1.30 to connect and 13 cents per minute in-state — under a contract they made with MCI in 2001. The contract also eliminated state commissions. “We suffered no loss of security technology because of lowering charges,” said Teressa Roedel, Telecommunications Manager at the Missouri Department of Corrections. “Commissions was a big hit,” she said, “but the entire state and all offices were aware and agreed on the change.”

The New York Campaign for Telephone Justice had focused lobbying efforts for the Family Connections Bill on Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick. A Bruno staffer pointed to the bill’s committee status as explanation for why the bill was not acted upon this session. [06/26/06]

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