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5/15: Dialing with Dollars: How County Jails Profit From Immigrant Detainees(1)
Released 05 June 2014  By Leticia Miranda

Dialing with Dollars: How County Jails Profit From Immigrant Detainees

County jails charge excessive rates for phone usage—a huge barrier for
immigrant detainees fighting deportation.

Leticia Miranda
May 15, 2014

Arali was at home with her three-year-old son, Jose, when she got a call
from Suffolk County Jail, a correctional facility about half an hour from
her apartment in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her husband, Milton, was on
the other end of the line. In tears, Milton explained to her that he had
been detained after being in a car that was pulled over for a minor
traffic violation.

Both Milton and Arali are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Milton
migrated to the United States at twenty-one years-old in 2005 following a
hurricane that devastated his farm and much of Guatemala’s highland
region, leaving him without a source of income to support his two
children. Since then, Milton’s family back in Guatemala has been
overwhelmed by the drug and gang-related violence that has ravaged the
country over the last three decades. Drug traffickers recently killed
Milton’s cousin. For Milton, deportation could mean risking death.

Milton, who prefers to use only his first name because of his open
immigration case, was carpooling with his friend when a state policeman
pulled them over on Highway 495, near his home. The police officer said
the car’s stickers had expired. He asked Milton, who was in the passenger
seat, for identification and Milton handed him an ID from the Guatemalan
consulate. Shortly after, Milton says the police officer told him, “ICE is
looking for you.”

What he didn’t know was that ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
had issued a deportation order for him. These orders are relatively
common. They instruct immigrants to appear in court at some undetermined
time and place, and further instructions are, in theory, supposed to reach
the immigrant by mail. This often does not happen. In Milton’s case, the
police officer arrested him and took him to Suffolk County Jail, where
five hours after his arrest he was finally given a chance to call his
wife. “What are we going to do?” Arali asked him in tears over the phone.
“What’s going to happen to us?”

During the following four months that Milton was detained at Plymouth
County Detention Center, phone calls were his single lifeline to fighting
deportation and talking with his wife and son Jose, who was told his
father was away for work. But that lifeline came with a heavy price. Each
of these calls cost about $7, according to Milton and Arali. Every eight
days or so, Arali would deposit about $75 in an account to pay for the
phone calls. Because of Jose, Arali didn’t think twice about the cost.
“Milton would say, ‘Don’t deposit any more money. You need that for other
things,’” Arali, 28, explains. “I would tell him, ‘I need to.’ I couldn’t
find the words to tell [our son] what was happening.”

Arali and Milton are just two of thousands of undocumented immigrants
across the United States who are charged exorbitant rates for calls from
county jails that contract with ICE to hold immigrant detainees. About 50
percent of all immigrant detainees are held in county jails, according to
ICE, and many of these cash-strapped jails, like Plymouth County Detention
Center, have sought to raise revenue through contracts with phone
companies that charge excessive rates and kick back part of the profits.
Immigrant detainees end up paying the same inflated telephone rates
charged to their citizen inmate counterparts, but unlike jail inmates
charged with a crime, immigration detainees don’t have access to
court-appointed attorneys. This means they are responsible for finding an
attorney or representing themselves, both tasks that require affordable
phone access.

“There is no right to court-appointed council if you’re an indigent
immigration detainee,” confirms Claudia Valenzuela, associate director of
litigation with the National Immigrant Justice Center based in Chicago.
“So communicating with family or friends is extremely important because
you have to get your own evidence. If you don’t have an attorney, you’re
basically navigating alone.”

The few rights afforded to immigrant detainees are detailed in a series of
national detention standards issued by ICE in three different editions in
2000, 2008 and 2011. The telephone standards from 2011 are the most
robust. In them, ICE requires facilities to offer effective and
confidential communication with legal counsel and “reasonably priced
telephone rates” in which “contracts for such services shall…be based on
rates and surcharges comparable to those charged to the general public.”
Any difference in rates should “reflect actual costs associated with the
provision of services in a detention setting.”

But jails contracting with ICE are not compelled to follow the most recent
version of these standards. Some facilities reviewed by The Nation do in
fact follow the most recent edition of ICE’s detention standards. But
other facilities, like Essex County Jail in New Jersey, which can hold up
to 800 detainees on any given day, operate under ICE’s 2008 standards.
These only mention “reasonably priced telephone services” and make a thin
reference to telephone policies that will “foster legal access.” Still
other facilities, like Plymouth County Detention Center where Milton was
held for four months, function under the 2000 standards. These standards,
which were created by Immigration Naturalization Services, an agency that
was replaced by ICE in 2003, do not mention the cost of calls, stating
only that detainees be permitted “to make direct calls to legal service
providers.”

Immigrant rights advocates say these ill-defined, inconsistent and
unenforceable standards allow jails to charge immigrant detainees rates
that effectively disconnect them from family and legal access. In
February, county jails and state prisons began implementing a recent
Federal Communications Order that capped interstate debit and pre-paid
calls at $0.21 per minute and $0.25 per minute for collect calls. But that
left in-state calls, which fall under state regulation, untouched.

The exclusive contracts county jails hold with telephone companies like
Securus, Global Tel*Link and ICSolutions continue to charge high rates. At
Santa Ana City Jail in California, for example, a long-distance, 15-minute
in-state phone call can cost more than $13. The jail charges 69 cents a
minute for in-state calls and a $3.30 connection fee. The city collects a
54 percent commission on the total profits from the calls. The jail in
Yuba County, also in California, has a rate structure that is based on the
distance to the receiver and time of day. A long distance, 15-minute
in-state phone call can cost more than $12 for a detainee. The county
collects a 45 percent commission. Santa Ana made more than $237,000 in
commission on calls last year; Yuba County more than $109,000.

“ICE is aware of the considerable range in detainee phone rates at
facilities across the detention system,” ICE wrote to The Nation in an
e-mail. “In some facilities, rates are substantially less than rates and
surcharges comparable to the general public, but in the other facilities,
certain types of calls are higher. At local jails and municipal
facilities, ICE does not have input or control over the telephone rates or
telephone service providers subcontracted by the government entity.”

As ICE denies a role in this odd patchwork of varying standards, the
families of immigration detainees stretch themselves thin to maintain
their family connections and stay in contact with their lawyers. When
Milton was detained in June of last year, stay-at-home mom Arali took two
part-time restaurant jobs, making $8 an hour. But even then, some weeks
Arali didn’t have enough to pay for rent, let alone a phone call.

Many detainees are held in facilities in remote areas, and while criminal
defendants in those same jails have a right to court-appointed counsel in
the county where they are held, immigrant detainees do not. Because many
immigrant detainees seek out free legal services from non-profit law
firms—the median household income of undocumented immigrants was about
$36,000 in 2007 compared to $50,000 for US-born households—phone access is
essential.

Exacerbating the problem, people in detention can’t receive calls or leave
voice messages unless they pay an additional fee. About 78 percent of
detainees are in facilities that do not allow attorneys to schedule calls
with their clients, according to a 2010 report from the National Immigrant
Justice Center, and many jails have phone policies that make it difficult
for detainees to use the phones during business hours when their lawyer
might be available. Family members end up playing a crucial role in
facilitating legal cases between attorneys and their detained loved ones.

“A lot of clients have complained to me when they do get access to phones,
it’s late at night like 8 or 9 o’clock,” says Anoop Prasad, an attorney
with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus in San
Francisco, California, which currently has between fifteen and twenty
active immigration cases. “They might be able to call family, but they
can’t call their attorneys to prepare for their case.”

(Continue Part Two...)


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