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5/15: Dialing with Dollars: How County Jails Profit From Immigrant Detainees(2)
Released 05 June 2014  By Leticia Miranda

(.....Continue from Part One)

In Milton’s case, Arali found a local private immigration lawyer through a
friend at church. Arali worked overtime to be able to pay for an attorney
and sometimes didn’t deposit phone money to cover the fees. The law firm
pays a company to accept collect calls from the local detention centers,
including Plymouth, but the costs were “not nominal,” according to
Alejandro Heredia-Santoyo, Milton’s attorney. “Most of the time that we
spoke, Milton would call or I would let Arali know I needed to talk to
Milton,” says Heredia-Santoyo. “Then she would give me a message that he
would call me at a certain time. Without family, it becomes tremendously
difficult to have that line of communication.”

ICE does provide a pro-bono platform for detainees to make free calls to
approved nonprofit legal services, but even with this service, attorneys
say the telephone tree system is complicated. It requires a live person to
pick up the phone and sometimes fails to connect calls. If no one is
available to answer the call, detainees can’t leave messages and attorneys
are often left waiting to hear back from their client. “A lot of people I
represented would have…appeals coming up,” says Aneesha Gandhi, an
attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. “The fact
that I couldn’t get in touch with them when I needed to made it difficult
for me to advocate for them.”

Some facilities reviewed by The Nation, like Pinal County Jail in Arizona,
McHenry County Jail in Illinois, Calhoun County Jail in Michigan and
Portsmouth City Jail in Virginia, do allow inmates to leave and receive
voice messages—for a fee. This fee can range from 50 cents to $1.50 per
message. These counties collect a percentage of the calls from 45 cents a
call at Calhoun to 75 cents at Portsmouth, according to their contracts.

“As a nonprofit, the demand for services is higher than resources we have
as staff,” explains Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, immigration program director for
El Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, California, which represents
immigrant detainees. “If you’re able to arrange a call with a client
rather than driving to a county jail for 3 hours, you can do more cases.”
Wolfe-Roubatis says El Centro reviews about 120 possible detention cases
each month, but ends up only taking on about twenty-five at a time. The
organization also has a network of volunteer attorneys who are currently
handling ten other cases.

Because nonprofit legal services are overstretched or detainees may not
know they are available, many low-income immigrants represent themselves
in court. In 2013 about 41 percent of undocumented immigrants did not have
a lawyer during their immigration case, according to the Department of
Justice. For detained immigrants that figure rises to 84 percent,
according to a 2007 report from Amnesty International.

ICE allows detainees to make free phone calls to government consulates,
the Office of the Inspector General to make complaints, some non-profit
agencies and ICE itself. But self-representing detainees can’t make free
phone calls to former attorneys, possible witnesses or any other
government agency to help their case. They have to pay for those calls
themselves.

“If you don’t have friends or family and you need documentation from a
criminal case or a school, you’re on your own in gathering this
information,” says Valenzuela of the National Immigrant Justice Center.
“How do you make that call to that school if it is not on a pre-approved
list or if you don’t have the funds? It really infringes on a person’s
right to due process to be able to make your case.”

The issue is not new to ICE. A 2007 Government Accountability Office
report outlined the severity of the poor quality of telephone access for
detainees, writing the “detention facilities showed systemic telephone
system problems.” ICE then implemented a new provision in its contract
with Talton Communications, the telephone service provider that serves the
few detention facilities it owns. It now withholds half the profits from
debit and collect calls until the provider passes a semi-annual
performance review. ICE does not accept commissions on phone calls because
of the Anti-Kickback Act of 1986, which prohibits contractors from
offering the agency any commissions on services.

Calls from the six facilities owned and operated by ICE now cost
substantially less than calls from many county jails. Since ICE
implemented these changes, many of the nonprofit law firms and advocacy
organizations interviewed by The Nation say they have brought the issue of
phone call costs to their local ICE offices, but the price of a call has
yet to change at county jails.

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California
filed a class action lawsuit against ICE on behalf of all detainees held
at Contra Costa, Sacramento and Yuba County detention facilities, arguing
that restricting phone access "denies or severely limits Plaintiffs’
statutory and constitutional rights."

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“The cost and structure pose a huge barrier to even contacting a lawyer
and asking them to represent you through an initial consultation,” says
Julia Harumi Mass, lead counsel in the lawsuit with the ACLU. “Off the bat
[that] limits your ability to get an attorney to such an extent that we
think it violates the right to counsel.”

At Sacramento County Jail, inmates pay up to $4.75 for a 15-minute
in-state call, according to its contract with ICSolutions provided by the
ACLU. The company also charges $6.50 for a “credit/debit card transaction
fee for pre-paid collect” accounts and a monthly collect billing fee of
$2.49. Sacramento County collects a 65 percent commission on every call.
At West County Detention Center in Contra Costa County, detainees can pay
up to $8 for a 20-minute in-state phone call. The county collected a
$75,000 bonus for signing the contract on top of a 57 percent commission
on all calls, according to its contract obtained by the ACLU.

Audley Barrington Lyon Jr., a 34-year old Jamaican immigrant and the lead
plaintiff in the case, is currently being detained at West County
Detention Center. He has been trying since October to get the documents he
needs to apply for a U-Visa, a class of visa granted to immigrants who are
crime victims, but his wife can’t afford to pay for his phone calls to
prove he was randomly shot and cooperated with authorities to find the
shooter.

“My wife and I have been forced to communicate by writing letters to one
another,” he wrote in his declaration. “However, it has been extremely
slow and inefficient for us to work together on my immigration case by
mail. A simple question causes a delay of several days.”

ICE denied any allegation of “ongoing violations of the constitutional and
statutory rights of immigrants held in government custody pending
deportation proceedings,” according to its court response. The lawsuit is
now moving forward at the Northern District Court of California.

That same month, California Assembly member Bill Quirk introduced a bill
that would prohibit inmate telephone service contracts with jails and
juvenile facilities from including “commission or other payment" to the
facility. They would also have to provide the "lowest cost of service" to
inmates and detainees. The California-based advocacy group Community
Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), has long
pressed for such a measure. Co-directors Christina Mansfield and Christina
Fialho founded a visitation program at West County Detention Center in
2010. “[Detainees] inability to maintain contact with their families was
completely dire,” says Mansfield, whose organization now has about 700
visiting volunteers across the country. The bill passed the Local
Government Committee on April 23, and the Assembly will vote on the bill
later this month.

Advocates are also laying the groundwork for reform in New Jersey. On
April 30, a group of family members of current county jail inmates, former
ICE detainees and criminal justice organizations filed a petition with the
Board of Public Utilities, which regulates in-state phone policies,
calling for it to enforce “just and reasonable” phone costs for county
jail inmates.

Meanwhile, after months in detention, Milton was eventually released from
detention after ICE determined he was a low-priority deportation case. He
is now at home in Massachusetts, finally reunited with his wife and son.
He came home pale and thin—he rarely had free time outside and the jail
served mostly potatoes for meals—and their son still suffers from the
trauma of his dad being gone so long, but most days are peaceful. Monday
through Saturday Milton works at a company that sells rugs in nearby
Wesley, and every Sunday they go to church in Framingham. Sometimes Milton
plays soccer with his friends on the weekends.

“We’re just grateful he’s out now,” said Arali, who still lives with fear
that the immigration court could eventually decide to deport her husband.
“We’re just fighting for another opportunity to stay.”


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