Price-gouging and state-sanctioned bribery

The Massachusetts Legislature just can’t bring itself to end price-gouging and state-sanctioned bribery.

On January 20, 2017 state Senator Mark Montigny sponsored bill S.1336 (“An Act relative to inmate telephone calls”) to lower the crushing cost of inmate telephone calls and eliminate kickback “commissions” offered by companies like Securus and accepted by prison administrators like Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson. Last September there were hearings on Montigny’s bill and it was eventually referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, headed by Karen Spilka and Joan Lovely.

The wording of Montigny’s bill was similar to Massachusetts House bill H.825, filed only two days earlier by state Representative Carlos Gonzalez, and co-sponsored by Carole Fiola, Russell Holmes, and Bud Williams. The House version had more teeth — it required that “the cost of local and long distance telephone service provided to prisoners in department of correction facilities and county houses of correction shall be the same as the rates charged for comparable residential telephone service.” Like the Senate version, Gonzalez’s bill also sought to put an end to kickbacks.

A second House bill, H.966, with identical wording, was filed not long after by Representative Chyna Tyler, and co-sponsored by Mike Connolly, Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Paul Heroux, Mary Keefe, Kay Khan, Elizabeth Malia, Juana Matias, Timothy Whelan, Bud Williams, and Senator James Eldridge.

These two House bills were identical to H.1614, which had been filed two years earlier by Benjamin Swan, and co-sponsored by Gloria Fox, Elizabeth Malia, Ellen Story, Carlos Gonzalez, and Mary Keefe. This 2015 version was placed on the back-burner until October 2016, when House Speaker Bob DeLeo scuttled it by sending it off for “study.”

Despite impressive work by the Legislature, the price-gouging and anti-corruption provisions in all these inmate phone service bills never made it into the Criminal Justice Omnibus bill, S.2371, passed recently and signed into law. Instead, legislators decided to punt these matters to a Department of Corrections “study”:

“The department of correction, in consultation with the department of telecommunications and cable, shall study and report on: (i) the cost of local and long-distance telephone service provided to prisoners in department of correction facilities and houses of correction; (ii) a comparison of the rates with comparable residential telephone service; and (iii) information relative to commissions and revenue collected as part of telephone services provided to prisoners in department of correction facilities and houses of correction. The report shall be filed with the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on the judiciary, the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on public safety and security and the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on telecommunications, utilities and energy not later than December 31. 2018.”

Unfortunately, the Department of Corrections has a glaring conflict of interest. The DOC itself profits from prison phone contract kickbacks, so it will be interesting to see what sorts of justifications they cook up for maintaining their own cushy deal with Securus.

It’s shameful and jaw-dropping but, despite commendable individual efforts to end theses sleazy practices, a Massachusetts lawsuit and dozens of class action lawsuits around the country, the Legislature has shown that it is unwilling to do anything about price-gouging a mainly indigent prison population and permitting public officials to accept kickbacks.

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