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Worth Rises: Paying for Jail - How County Jails Extract Wealth from New York Communities, 2019

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PAYING FOR JAIL
How County Jails
Extract Wealth from
New York Communities
DE C EMBE R 2 01 9

C O- PUBL IS H E D BY:
WO RTH RISES
Worth Rises is a non-profit organization dedicated to dismantling the prison
industrial complex and ending the exploitation of those it touches. We work to
expose the commercialization of the criminal legal system and advocate and
organize to protect and return the economic resources extracted from affected
communities. Through our work, we strive to pave the road toward a safe and just
world free of police and prisons.
BROO K LYN CO M M U N IT Y B A IL FU N D
The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund (BCBF) is dedicated to challenging the racism
and injustices of a criminal legal system and immigration deportation regime that
disproportionately target low-income communities of color, drive mass incarceration
and perpetuate inequality. From 2015 through 2019, BCBF operated the country’s
largest community bail fund, freeing 5,000 people from pretrial detention. BCBF
began paying immigration bond in late 2018, and has freed over 350 people to
date. Ours is a radical intervention that combines harm reduction—freeing people
from jail and immigration detention—with systems change.
AUTHO RED B Y
Katie Schaffer, Bianca Tylek, Robert Callahan
SUGGESTED CIT A T IO N
Katie Schaffer, Bianca Tylek, Robert Callahan. Paying for Jail: How County
Jails Extract Wealth from New York Communities. New York, NY: Worth Rises,
Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, 2019.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
IN TROD UCTION 								

5

Overview									
Purpose									
Scope										
Methodology
Findings									

5
6
6
7
8

COS TS TO FAMILIES 							

9

Phone Calls									
Commissary									
Disciplinary Tickets

10
14

COS TS TO FAMILIES : IN C O N TEXT					

15

PROFITEERIN G 								

16

Predatory Monopolies							
Corporate Revenue, County Kickbacks					

16
16

R ECOMMEN DATION S 							

18

12

Overview									
18
End Money Bail and Pretrial Detention
18
Connect Families								
18
Ensure Access to Basic Necessities and End Commissary Mark-ups	19
Eliminate Disciplinary Fines							
19
Ensure Real Wages for All New Yorkers					
19
End Criminal Legal System Fines and Fees				
20
Protect the Right to Vote							
20
Ensure Transparency and Accountability					
20
ACK N OW LED G EMEN TS 							

21

EN D N OTES 									

21

APPEN D IX 									

23

FOIL Request Template							
Jail Phone Call Rates							

23
25

PAYING FOR JAIL

Having your loved ones in jail, not convicted of anything, has
an emotional and financial impact, particularly on a fixed
income. You know the quality of the ‘food’ served to
‘residents,’ it’s not edible. So you have to take food from your
own house, money from your own needs to put money on
the commissary, so that they can pay for overpriced items
at Armarck or whatever that company is called. There’s also
the cost of the phones. Communication is vital. It can help
save their life. In addition to the food, you then have to put
money on the phone. That eats up your pocket. One call is
$2. If you do this on a regular basis, you’re looking at
$200-300 on the phone alone, $50-75 for the food each
month. Then you want to get up to see them as much as
you can. So if you work, you’ve got to take the day off from
work.
Then there’s the emotional and mental strain and stress of
not having them at home and not knowing what’s going
on with them. It’s affected my health. Stress will make you
sick. A broken heart will make you sick. When they say you
do time with the person, you really do. This is the impact we
face as family.
— R EV. E M M A L OF TI N -W OOD S —

4

PAYING FOR JAIL

INTRODUCTION
OV E R V I E W
Each night in 2019, over 22,000 New Yorkers languished in local jails. Over the
course of the year, more than a quarter of a million New Yorkers — 267,000 people
— were booked into jails across the state.1 Many suffered behind bars for weeks,
months, or years.2 And the vast majority were incarcerated pretrial, not convicted,
but behind bars because they could not afford bail.3
By themselves, these numbers are alarming. But they do not begin to account for
the scale of mass criminalization in New York. As Reverend Emma Loftin-Woods
explains, incarceration does not just impact individuals, it devastates families and
communities. From emotional strain to lost wages, families suffer when their loved
ones are disappeared behind bars.4
The costs are extreme. Time in jail is psychologically and physically traumatizing.
It is also economically destabilizing for individuals and families. Even a single night
in jail can lead to the loss of a job and a cascading series of consequences. For
families, an incarcerated loved one means lost wages and lost support, from child
care to elder care. Additionally, families have a new range of costs to pay in order
to support and stay connected to their incarcerated loved one, including the cost
of phone calls, transportation for visits, and commissary. And because the vast
majority of people in New York’s jails are incarcerated pretrial due to an inability
to afford bail, these costs are borne overwhelmingly by working-class and poor
people. Each layer of our criminal legal system — from policing that targets lowincome communities and communities of color to a pretrial system that determines
freedom on the basis of wealth to a jail system rife
with profiteering — drains money from those least
able to afford it and further entrenches economic
Time in jail is psychologically
inequity.

and physically traumatizing. It is

But impacted families and advocates have fought
also economically destabilizing
back. National movements to end money bail and
for individuals and families.
pretrial detention, eliminate court system fines and
fees, and confront prison and jail profiteering have
created a critical focus on how the legal system
criminalizes poverty, extracts wealth from families, and exacerbates financial
precarity, particularly in communities of color. In New York, important — though
incomplete — victories have been achieved, but financial exploitation through the
criminal legal system continues.
In this report, we publish data exposing the scale of three direct costs levied
against families of people incarcerated in New York’s jails: phone calls, commissary,
and disciplinary tickets. While families often struggle to bear these costs quietly
and individually, the injustice is systemic and endemic. Exorbitantly priced phone
calls disconnect New Yorkers from their loved ones, interfere with access to legal
counsel for those in jail pretrial, and make reentry even more challenging. Through

5

PAYING FOR JAIL
jail commissaries, local governments transfer the costs of basic necessities —
including food and hygiene products — onto incarcerated people and their families.
And disciplinary ticket fines are often used to exploit, demean, and further punish
those already incarcerated.
These forms of wealth extraction comprise only a fraction of the larger costs and
consequences of the carceral system, but they illustrate the systemic exploitation
of economically disenfranchised people. Although New York has no private prisons
or jails, for-profit corporations reap millions of dollars through jail service contracts
and repay their government partners with kickbacks. Through these profit-sharing
agreements, local governments collude with prison profiteers in the exploitation of
communities across New York.

P U R P O SE
We write this report to make public three examples of wealth extraction from
incarcerated people and their families. We also write this as organizers and
advocates with the explicit goal of motivating policy change in New York. The most
direct route to addressing the harms of incarceration is to dramatically reduce
the number of people incarcerated with the long-term goal of abolishing jails and
prisons. Through the passage of legislation in April 2019 that limits money bail and
pretrial detention, New York has taken a step in that direction.
However, there is far more work to do. To fully decarcerate New York’s jails, we
seek legislation that ends money bail and pretrial detention for all people. We
also call on New York to eliminate the cost of phone calls from jails and prisons,
provide for basic necessities and end the markup of commissary items, recognize
and compensate all labor, and end profiteering in the criminal legal system. For a
full list of the policy recommendations contained in this report, refer to p. 18.

SCOPE
Currently, New York has 80 local jails in 62 counties. In this report, we focus
specifically on the counties outside of New York City because they account for the
majority of New Yorkers in jail, but receive far less attention and scrutiny. In 2018,
over 14,500 people were incarcerated each night in Long Island, Westchester, the
Hudson Valley, the Southern Tier, the Capital District, and regions across New York
outside of New York City’s five boroughs.
While it is often assumed that jail incarceration is solely a New York City issue,
non-New York City jails account for over 63% of the total jail population while they
compose only 57% of the total population in the state.5 Moreover, while New York
City’s jail population has fallen by more than half since 2014, jail populations in
many parts of the state have grown and represent far higher rates of incarceration.6
For example, in Broome County, the rate of jail incarceration is more than twice
the rate in New York City.7 Despite this jail crisis, there is far less data available
in counties outside of New York City, so the cost and consequences of local
incarceration are often hidden from view.

6

PAYING FOR JAIL
M E T H O DO L O G Y
In late 2018, Worth Rises (then known as the Corrections Accountability Project)
sent Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to all 57 non-New York City
counties for 2017 data on phone calls, commissary, and disciplinary fines. We
focused on these three costs because they represent the most substantial,
extractive, and quantifiable costs placed on incarcerated people and their families.
Additionally, they illustrate how publicly-operated jails are privatized and serve as
both profit-makers for corporations and revenue sources for counties.
Out of the 57 counties to which we sent record requests, 35 replied and 19 provided
financial records. While we do not have records for every county, we believe that
the sample of respondents is generally representative of counties in the state. As
evident in the map below, the counties for which we have data are geographically
distributed throughout the state. We note, however, that on average they are
slightly smaller than the average county. While the median population of non-New
York City counties is about 77,000 (as of the 2010 census), the median population
for counties responding to our FOIL requests is 62,000.
Using the data on phone call costs we received from nearly one-third of the 57
counties, we were able to extrapolate to non-responding counties with a highlevel of confidence. Given the lower response rates for commissary and disciplinary
tickets, our projections are less conclusive but we include them to provide a sense
of statewide scale. In all cases, our analysis accounted for variations between
border and interior counties and counties of varying sizes.

R E S PON S E S TO FOI L
R E Q UE S T BY C OUN T Y

F I N A N C I A L RE CO RDS P ROVI DE D
R E S P O N S E RE CE I VE D
N O R E S P O N SE
N OT I N C L U DE D

7

PAYING FOR JAIL
F I N DI N G S
In response to our FOIL requests, 18 counties provided phone data, 12 counties
provided commissary data, and 9 counties provided disciplinary ticket data. In
those counties alone in 2017, we found that families paid:
• $4.8 million for jail phone calls
• $1.7 million for commissary
• $41,000 for disciplinary fines
In the 9 counties that provided complete data, families spent an average of $152
each month on jail phone calls, commissary, and disciplinary tickets, equivalent to
6% of the average monthly income8 and 20% of the average rent for a 1-bedroom
apartment.
Extrapolating from the counties from which we have data, we estimate that in 2017
the 57 counties outside of New York City extracted over $25.1 million for phone calls,
$14.1 million for commissary, and $0.2 million for disciplinary tickets. Altogether, in
2017, county governments and their corporate partners raked in $39 million from
incarcerated people and their families on these services. Adding on deposit fees
and taxes brings the total to approximately $50
million. This amounts to an average cost of $175
per month for the families of incarcerated people,
County governments
or $2,100 annually.

and their
corporate partners raked in
$50 million from incarcerated
people and their families in
2017.

By contracting with predatory corporations,
counties are at best complicit and at worst active
participants in this financial exploitation of New
York families. In 2017, the 14 counties that provided
complete information regarding phone call revenues
and commissions allowed their telecom vendors to
collect nearly $2.0 million on jail phone calls and received $1.7 million in return
through profit-sharing agreements. Extrapolated statewide, for the approximately
$25.1 million that corporations collect in jail call charges each year, we estimate
that counties receive $11.8 million in corporate kickbacks.

The unresponsiveness of many counties to open records requests is also an
important finding of this report.9 Contrary to law and basic democratic principles,
39% of counties did not respond at all to our request and only 33% provided financial
records. Of the 10 largest counties surveyed, only 2 provided data, a response rate
of 20%. The information we sought relates to significant wealth extraction by the
criminal legal system, a practice that has devastating consequences for individuals,
families, and communities. This lack of transparency allows abuse to go unchecked
and creates obstacles to accountability and change. It is also illegal. Under FOIL,
county governments are required to turn over the requested information. It is
impossible to know if counties failed to respond out of defiance — and a desire to
conceal the requested information — or out of bureaucratic inability. Regardless,
this lack of transparency is disturbing and must be addressed.

8

PAYING FOR JAIL

COSTS TO FAMILIES
The financial costs to families with an incarcerated loved one are staggering. They
include the cost of phone calls, commissary, packages, visiting, and lawyer and
court fees. They also include less explicit costs like the loss of income or the
loss of child or elder care and unquantifiable costs like the childhood trauma of
parental incarceration.
Due to structural injustices — including discriminatory policing, bail practices,
and sentencing — incarcerated people are disproportionately working-class or
poor. Using Bureau of Justice data, the Prison Policy Initiative found that in 2014
dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their
incarceration — 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.10 Imposing
these excessive costs on families that can least afford it exacerbates poverty and
economic marginalization. In fact, a 2015 study by the Ella Baker Center, Forward
Together, and Research Action Design found that cost is the top barrier for families
trying to stay in touch with an incarcerated loved one and nearly one in three
families going into debt trying to do so. And importantly, 87% of family members
responsible for phone and visit costs are women — primarily women of color.11
Incarcerated New Yorkers and their families are charged astronomical rates to stay
connected with their loved ones, lawyers, and other service providers, even more
so than other parts of the country. On average, phone calls from New York jails
($8.83) are 50% more expensive than the national jail average ($5.86), and run as
high as $9.95 for a 15-minute local call.12 These prices are the result of lucrative
agreements between correctional telecom providers, whose standalone practices
are steeped in predation, and county governments
looking for their share of the pie.

A 15-minute phone call can
cost as much as $9.95.

Though a major expense, phone calls are just the
beginning. Other sources of financial exploitation
are jail and prison commissaries where incarcerated
people can purchase food, clothes, and other items.
Not only do jail administrators compel incarcerated people and their families to
cover basic necessities, but with the help of private commissary vendors, they
sell these and other products at severely marked-up costs. This model gives
rise to remarkably perverse incentives: by failing to provide sufficient food and
hygiene products or serve edible food, sheriffs coerce commissary purchases from
incarcerated people. In the worst cases, the jail’s food service provider is also their
commissary vendor, ensuring that costs cut in the kitchen produce doubly at the
jail store.
While disciplinary fines account for a much smaller amount of money, they further
drain resources from incarcerated people and their families, using financial
exploitation as an additional means of punishment.

9

PAYING FOR JAIL
While much of the public’s ire is directed at private prisons, our government-run
jails are rife with exploitation and profiteering. In New York, where we do not
have any privately-operated jails, our county governments outsource nearly every
function in jails — including phone service, commissary, laundry, and maintenance,
among others — to private, for-profit corporations at great cost to New York
families and communities.

PHONE CALLS
Phone calls are a critical way for families to stay connected to their incarcerated
loved ones. Given the remoteness of jails, lack of public transportation, and limited
visiting hours, in-person visits can be logistically challenging. Phone calls thus offer
the only regular means by which many children with incarcerated parents, parents
with incarcerated children, and spouses with incarcerated partners can maintain
family ties that are important not just to combat the everyday hopelessness jails
produce, but also to support successful reentry upon
release. Access to phone calls is also critical for
Each month, families with an
people incarcerated pretrial who may need to make
immediate contingency plans — like arrangements
incarcerated loved one spend
for who will pick up their child at school — and to
$103 on jail phone calls alone.
speak with their legal counsel or others who may
assist in their case.
However, predatory telecom corporations and their government partners charge
incarcerated people and their families egregious rates for phone calls. In New York,
a 15-minute phone call from a state prison costs $0.65, more than six times the
minimum hourly wage in prison. But the problem is even more dire in county jails.
From a New York county jail, a 15-minute phone call can cost as much as $9.95.13
More than 75% of the state’s county jails outside of New York City charge this rate
because of the near monopoly held by a single telecom provider.14
Given the incredibly limited resources and earning
ability of incarcerated people, their families—
many of whom also have limited means—typically
bear the cost of communication. Across only 18
responding counties, families paid over $4.8 million
for phone calls in just 2017, or on average, $103 per
month on phone calls alone. Of these counties, the
average family spent the most in Orange and Yates
County where families with incarcerated loved ones
spent over $250 for the average jail stay of 45 and
46 days, respectively, just to be in touch.

Incarcerated people and their
families are charged more than
2.5 times as much for phone
calls
as
non-incarcerated
people.

Notably, the annual phone costs for incarcerated people are far greater than
the cost of phone communication for non-incarcerated people. For example, an
unlimited talk and text plan with a major carrier runs just $40 per month,15 meaning
that, on average, incarcerated people and their families are charged more than 2.5
times as much as non-incarcerated people for highly limited phone use.

10

PAYING FOR JAIL
TABLE 1: MONTHLY PHONE COSTS FOR INCARCERATED
TABLE 1: MONTHLY
PHONE COSTS FOR
INCARCERATED PEOPLE IN 18 COUNTIES (2017)
PEOPLE
IN 18 COUNTIES
(2017)
Average
Number of
Days in Jail
Per
Admission*

Average Cost
Per Person
Per
Admission*

COUNTY

Daily Jail
Census

Phone
Spending

Average Per
Person
Monthly
Phone Costs

ALBANY

576

$843,953

$122

38

$153

ALLEGANY

111

$162,857

$122

52

$209

CHAUTAUQUA

282

$351,408

$104

31

$106

CHENANGO

93

$97,336

$87

58

$166

CORTLAND

93

$82,512

$74

32

$78

FRANKLIN

93

$102,459

$92

51

$154

GENESEE

97

$81,454

$70

21

$48

HERKIMER

70

$35,316

$42

13

$18

LIVINGSTON

128

$196,425

$128

49

$206

MADISON

82

$99,412

$101

48

$159

ONEIDA

491

$276,712

$47

45

$69

ORANGE

681

$1,775,975

$217

35

$250

SCHUYLER

21

$10,258

$41

40

$54

SENECA

79

$105,203

$111

45

$164

STEUBEN

208

$325,423

$130

43

$184

TIOGA

79

$104,454

$110

38

$138

TOMPKINS

76

$81,459

$89

44

$129

YATES

44

$90,928

$172

46

$260

TOTAL

3,304

$4,823,544

--

--

--

--

--

$103

41

$141

AVERAGE

*2015 average daily stay data

And still, given the economic position of most incarcerated people and their
families, many would be eligible for federal subsidy programs that ease access to
communications service, but do not cover prison calls.
In the end, these costs amount to a tremendous amount of wealth extraction from
communities with truly limited resources. Using the data provided and accounting
for variations in calling trends between border and interior counties, and counties
of varying sizes, we estimate that the fifty-seven counties outside of New York
City extract over $25.1 million through jail phone calls each year. With deposit
fees and taxes layered on,16 the cost to New York’s families grows to an estimated
$32.4 million.

11

PAYING FOR JAIL

The fifty-seven counties outside of New York City extract over
$25.1 million through jail phone calls each year. With deposit
fees and taxes layered on, the cost to New York’s families
grows to an estimated $32.4 million.

C O M M I S SA RY
County governments and jail administrators transfer the cost of basic necessities
onto incarcerated people and their families through jail and prison commissaries.
Often, jail administrators contract the same private vendor for food service and
commissary, creating a perverse incentive for the corporation to serve poor quality
food that drives people to purchase their food products at commissary. It is a
practice that counties also benefit from as they pay for food service but can earn
a portion back through commissary sales. The corporations that comprise this $1.6
billion national industry serve food delivered with labels that read “Low Grade
but Edible” and then sell marginally better, processed products at prison and jail
commissaries to “consumers” who have no choice but to pay unconscionable prices
multiples higher than the mainstream market.
And it is not just food that incarcerated people purchase at commissaries. Instead
of receiving shampoo, lotion, deodorant, or menstrual products free of charge,
incarcerated people with the support of their families are forced to buy these
products for significantly marked-up prices as well.
Thus, sheriffs do not merely provide “additional”
items at commissaries, but instead use them to
counties outside of
shift the cost of basic necessities onto incarcerated
City extracted an
people.

New York
New York
estimated $14 million from
families through commissary.

The 12 counties that provided commissary data
extract $1.7 million in commissary purchases
annually. Incarcerated people in the largest jails
spent the most monthly on commissary, $94 in
Albany County and $92 in Orange County; more than $1,100 annually. While it is
much harder to extrapolate the statewide jail commissary revenue from the data
collected, we believe that it could easily top $14 million.
There is a large discrepancy between the per person commissary costs in the largest
counties and smaller counties. The difference does not appear to be attributable
to anomalously high markups or to a difference in vendors. It is possible that these
jails have especially unpleasant or inedible meals, make transferring and spending
commissary funds slightly easier, or that families have marginally more income to
spare in larger cities. Without access to more economic data on affected families,
it is difficult to determine cause with any degree of confidence.

12

PAYING FOR JAIL
CHART 1: MONTH LY CO ST OF COMM ISSARY PER INCARCERAT ED
PERSON (2017)

TABLE 2: MONTHLY COMMISSARY COSTS FOR INCARCERATED
TABLE 2: MONTHLY
COMMISSARY COSTS
FOR INCARCERATED PEOPLE IN 12 COUNTIES (2017)
PEOPLE
IN 12 COUNTIES
(2017)

COUNTY

Daily Jail
Census

Commissary
Spending

Average Per
Person
Monthly
Commissary
Costs

ALBANY

576

$648,614

$94

38

$117

ALLEGANY

111

$46,240

$35

52

$59

CHAUTAUQUA

282

$16,943

$5

31

$5

CORTLAND

93

$9,074

$8

32

$9

LIVINGSTON

128

$36,949

$24

49

$39

MADISON

82

$21,151

$21

48

$34

MONTGOMERY

96

$19,183

$17

44

$24

ORANGE

681

$755,769

$92

35

$106

SCHUYLER

21

$1,120

$4

40

$6

TIOGA

79

$20,819

$22

38

$27

TOMPKINS

76

$79,883

$88

44

$127

YATES

44

$13,126

$25

46

$38

TOTAL

2,269

$1,668,871

--

--

--

--

--

$36

41

$49

AVERAGE

13

Average
Number of
Days in Jail
Per
Admission*

Average Cost
Per Person
Per
Admission*

PAYING FOR JAIL

Whatever an officer tells you to do, even if it is dehumanizing
to you, you have to do it. For example, if an officer throws a
pen on the floor and orders you to pick it up and you don’t,
you get a ticket for disobeying a direct order.
— ROG E R C L ARK —

DI S C I P L I N A RY T I CK ETS
Jail staff can issue disciplinary tickets for any “misbehavior report” at their
own discretion. Making matters worse, the fines assessed in association with
disciplinary tickets create financial incentives for correctional officers to issue
tickets to generate revenue for the county. In this way, disciplinary tickets are used
as a means of punishment as well as wealth extraction.
To collect disciplinary fines, jail administrators will often place a lien on commissary
accounts. If family members deposit money into an incarcerated person’s account
for their loved one to purchase food, hygiene supplies, or other products, this
support is garnished to pay disciplinary fines first. This limits incarcerated people’s
ability to purchase basic necessities and further drains resources from their
families, all while padding county budgets. Across the nine counties that provided
data on the fines levied for disciplinary tickets, the total revenue from disciplinary
tickets was over $41,000.
TABLE 3: DISCIPLINARY COSTS FOR INCARCERATED
TABLE 3: DISCIPLINARY
COSTS FOR(2017)
INCARCERATED PEOPLE IN 9 COUNTIES (2017)
PEOPLE
IN 9 COUNTIES
Number of
Disciplinary
Charges

Average
Disciplinary Fine

COUNTY

Daily Jail Census

Total Disciplinary
Fines

ALBANY

576

$1,770

Did not report

N/A

CHAUTAUQUA

282

$20,000

900

$22

CHENANGO

93

$5,200

450

$12

CORTLAND

93

$3,250

87

$37

GENESEE

97

$1,121

89

$13

LIVINGSTON

128

$2,325

93

$25

MADISON

82

$5,354

271

$20

TIOGA

79

$1,550

Did not report

N/A

TOMPKINS

76

$575

Did not report

N/A

1,506

$41,145

1,890

--

--

--

--

$22

TOTAL
AVERAGE

14

PAYING FOR JAIL

COSTS TO FAMILIES: IN CONTEXT
To understand the significance of these costs, it is important to consider them
within the context of per capita income and other expenses borne by families.
In the counties that provided complete data, the families of incarcerated New
Yorkers pay roughly $152 per month for phone calls, commissary, and disciplinary
tickets, equivalent to 6% of their average monthly income17 and 20% of the average
rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in these counties.18
CHART 2: AVERAGE J AIL AND HOU SING COSTS C OMPARED TO
TOTAL IN COME (2017)

TABLE 4: JAIL COSTS V. INCOME AND HOUSING, BY COUNTY (2017)
TABLE 4: JAIL COSTS V. INCOME AND HOUSING, BY COUNTY (2017)

COUNTY

Per Capita
Monthly Jail
Costs

Per Capita
Monthly
Income

% of Monthly
Income

Average 1-Bed
Rent

% of Monthly
Rent

ALBANY

$216

$2,303

9%

$817

26%

CHAUTAUQUA

$115

$1,997

6%

$551

21%

CORTLAND

$85

$2,189

4%

$639

13%

LIVINGSTON

$153

$2,157

7%

$737

21%

MADISON

$128

$2,334

5%

$647

20%

ORANGE

$310

$2,718

11%

$1,021

30%

SCHUYLER

$47

$2,107

2%

$568

8%

TIOGA

$134

$2,521

5%

$597

22%

TOMPKINS

$178

$2,480

7%

$911

19%

AVERAGE

$152

$2,263

6%

$721

20%

15

PAYING FOR JAIL

PROFITEERING
Profiteering and wealth extraction is rife throughout the criminal legal system. This
is true even of jurisdictions — like New York — that do not have for-profit jails
or prisons. Basic necessities — like keeping in touch with family through phone
calls and basic food and hygiene items — should be provided free of charge to all
people. Instead, New York has increasingly privatized these services and allowed
a few large predatory corporations to profit off of the families of incarcerated
people.

P R E DATO RY M O N OP O LIES
Global Tel*Link (GTL) has a near monopoly on phone services in New York jails.
Of the state’s 57 non-New York City counties, 48 — or 85% — contract with GTL.
The remaining counties contract with Securus (GTL’s largest national competitor,
to which it lost the state prison contract in 2017) and ICSolutions. The type of
regional monopoly held by GTL enables predatory charging. Not only does GTL
charge more than any other provider in the state, but it charges more than it does
in other regions where it is subject to stronger competition. Nationally, GTL owns
roughly 40% of the correctional telecom market and charges an average of $3.94
for a 15-minute local phone call. But in New York, it charges an average of $9.56
for that same call.19
GTL’s influence over contracts is also evident in the similarity of rate structures.
Forty-four New York counties charge $4.35 for the first minute and $0.40 for
every additional minute of a local call. For context, the Federal Communications
Commission capped the cost of interstate calls at $0.21 per minute.20 In other
words, it is more than three times as expensive for a person incarcerated in a New
York county jail to call their mother down the street than it is for them to call a
relative across the country.
There appears to be a similar level of vendor concentration in commissary. Ten of
the 11 counties that provided commissary data contract with the Swanson Services
Corporation, also known as Trinity Services Group, a corporation that provides both
food service and commissary and is part of the larger correctional conglomerate
TKC.

C O R P O R AT E R E V E N UE, CO UN TY K ICK B ACK S
Through these predatory contracts, corporations and their government partners
extract an exorbitant amount of money from communities in New York. While large
corporations are the masterminds behind these predatory pricing schemes and the
majority of profits line their pockets, local governments benefit from profit-sharing
agreements. These commissions — or more aptly named corporate kickbacks —
allow counties to collect revenue from the economic exploitation of incarcerated

16

PAYING FOR JAIL
people and their families. In this way, counties are not just customers for these
vendors, they are partners in the extraction of resources from working-class and
poor New Yorkers.
In 2017, the 14 counties that provided complete information regarding phone call
revenues and commissions allowed their telecom vendors to rake in nearly $2.0
million on jail phone calls and received $1.7 million in corporate kickbacks.

For the approximately $25.1
million that corporations
collect in jail phone charges
each year, we estimate that
counties receive $11.8 million
in corporate kickbacks.

In Orange County alone, families paid GTL nearly $1.8
million to connect with their incarcerated loved ones,
and GTL, in turn, paid the county nearly $1 million
that year. On average, New York counties collect an
effective commission rate of 47% on call charges.21
For the approximately $25.1 million that corporations
collect in call charges annually, we estimate that
counties receive $11.8 million in corporate kickbacks.

The revenues that corporations earn from commissary
and the profit-sharing arrangements they strike with
counties are far more opaque. In many cases, counties outsource the operation of
commissary and are paid some form of a corporate kickback. In others, they run
their own commissary, merely buying products wholesale from private commissary
vendors and reselling them at a markup. While we believe that incarcerated people
and their families spend roughly $14 million annually on commissary, the corporate
versus county breakdown is unclear.

CHART 3: PHONE CA LL REVENUE AND COMMISSIONS (2017)

17

PAYING FOR JAIL

RECOMMENDATIONS
OV E R V I E W
Mass criminalization does tremendous harm. Pretrial jailing and other forms of
incarceration separate families, create new emotional and financial burdens, and
subject people to constitutional and human rights violations. To address the jail
crisis, New York must dramatically decarcerate, but while people remain behind
bars, we must ensure that the costs of this system are not transferred onto
incarcerated people and their families. This practice is incompatible with any effort
to build a just and equitable society.
Below are a list of legislative and policy recommendations to decarcerate jails and
end jail-based wealth extraction from New York’s communities.

1 | E N D M O N E Y B A IL AN D P R ETR IAL D ETEN TIO N
The bail reform legislation passed in April 2019 — and set for implementation in
January 2020 — will greatly reduce the number of people subject to money bail
and pretrial detention. The new statute also takes critical steps towards protecting
against profiteering in the pretrial system by prohibiting for-profit pretrial services
and barring any shifting of costs for pretrial conditions onto impacted people.
However, the new statute fails to eliminate money bail or the exploitative
commercial bail bonds industry.22 This means that access to wealth will still
determine access to justice for some presumptively innocent New Yorkers. As we
organize to maximize the decarceral impact of the new pretrial reforms, we call on
legislators to recommit to the full and complete end of money bail, due process for
all people, and the ultimate elimination of pretrial detention.

2 | C O N N E C T FA M ILIES
Alongside efforts to decarcerate jails and prisons, New York must also pass
legislation to connect families by providing telecom services at no cost to
incarcerated people or their loved ones. In New York’s county jails, where 66% of
people are incarcerated pretrial, expensive phone calls interfere with New Yorkers’
abilities to prepare for their own defense and to stay in communication with their
families. In New York State prisons, where people are often caged hundreds of miles
from home, phone calls are a vital source of connection and critical to successful
reintegration post-release.
In the end, charging exorbitant fees for communicating with family creates not just
financial burdens, but also emotional, familial, and social ones. The rates people
are forced to pay limits their contact, which is inhumane and makes reentry far
more challenging. Penalizing and extracting wealth from families supporting their

18

PAYING FOR JAIL
incarcerated loved ones is cruel. Doing so for the financial benefit of a corporation
or the county government is unconscionable.
To counteract this wrong, there is increasing momentum to provide communication
services in jails and prisons at no cost. In 2018, New York City was the first major
city in the nation to pass such legislation, and San Francisco announced a similar
commitment in 2019. Today, several states have introduced bills that would end
wealth extraction through jail and prison phone calls, New York among them. It is
time New York pass legislation to connect families.

3 | E N SU R E AC C E S S TO B AS IC N ECES S ITIES AN D
E N D C O M M I S SA RY MAR K - UP S
It is unethical for jail administrators and county governments to not provide
incarcerated people decent food and hygiene products and then to markup these
basic necessities at commissary to exorbitant prices. To ensure access and eliminate
profiteering through commissaries, New York must eliminate commissary markups
on products purchased for resale, prohibit correctional agencies from collecting
commissions on commissary sales, bar correctional agencies from contracting with
the same vendors for food and commissary service within a facility, and remove
prohibitions on care packages that inhibit loved ones from sending food, hygiene
products and books, among other necessities.

4 | E L I M I N AT E DI S CIP LIN ARY F IN ES
Disciplinary fines are ripe for abuse and create additional incentives to unnecessarily
punish incarcerated people. They are also costs borne by incarcerated people’s
families who often struggle to meet the accumulating financial burden of the
criminal legal system. Without a way to pay these fines, incarcerated people often
have them levied as liens on their commissary accounts, which are satisfied by
garnishing the financial support families send. For these reasons, New York must
eliminate disciplinary fines in local jails and state prisons.

5 | E N S U R E R E A L WAGES F O R ALL N EW
YO R K E R S
In New York state prisons, incarcerated people are required to work under threat of
additional punishment and are paid an average hourly wage as low as $0.10.23 While
the exact wages differ for county jails, they are similarly low. Not only is forced,
undercompensated labor abusive and rooted in our nation’s history of slavery, but
these meager wages make it impossible for incarcerated people to cover jail costs,
imposing them instead on families, further disrupting their economic stability. To
rectify this, New York must ban forced labor in all forms and, recognizing that all
labor is labor, require that incarcerated workers be covered by the state’s minimum
wage laws.

19

PAYING FOR JAIL
6 | E N D C R I M I N A L LEGAL S YS TEM F IN ES AN D
FEES
To address the criminalization of poverty, New York must eliminate criminal legal
system fees, including mandatory court surcharges and parole and probation
supervision fees. When people are diverted from jail or prison or returning home, it
is unreasonable and cruel to compel them to pay parole and probation fees. Support
and reintegration should include access to services and jobs, not additional debt.
New York must also end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees as
this practice criminalizes poverty and exacerbates cycles of debt.24

7 | P R OT E C T T H E RIG HT TO VOTE
The disenfranchisement of incarcerated people is rooted in racist policies designed
to deny Black people the right to vote. New York must undo this ongoing legacy and
the systemic disenfranchisement of Black and brown New Yorkers by guaranteeing
voting rights to all, including those who are incarcerated or on parole. For necessary,
transformative change, individuals and communities subject to the devastation of
mass incarceration must have a political voice.

8 | E N SU R E T R A N SPAR EN CY AN D
AC C O U N TA B I L I T Y
Remarkably little data is collected or reported on jail incarceration across New
York. While the Department of Criminal Justice Services reports on arrests along
with monthly and yearly jail populations, there is no state-level reporting on jail
admissions, average length of incarceration, costs related to incarceration, or other
critical data. Transparency is necessary for accountability. New York must pass
legislation to collect and make public the information needed for New Yorkers to
see the full scope and consequences of the jail system.

20

PAYING FOR JAIL

ACKNOWLEDGE MENTS
Thank you to Julia Watson for the graphic design, Genevieve Sachs for the cover illustration, and
Grace Li for organizing the FOIL requests. Thank you also to the following volunteers from SURJNYC who spent hours entering data: Ryan Acquaotta, Kiri Haggans, Scott Limbacher, Valerie
Kaufmann, Maggie McKenna, and Josh Wessler.

ENDNOTES
1	 New York City Division of Criminal Justice Services (2019). New York State Jail Population:
10 Year Trends: 2009 – 2018. Retrieved from https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/
ojsa/jail_pop_y.pdf
2	 Bertram, W. & Jones, A. (2019, September 19). “How Many People in Your State Go To Local
Jails Every Year?” Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/
blog/2019/09/18/state-jail-bookings/
3	 New York City Division of Criminal Justice Services (2019). New York State Jail Population:
10 Year Trends: 2009 – 2018. Retrieved from https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/
ojsa/jail_pop_y.pdf
4	 For a national accounting of apparent and hidden costs on families with incarcerated
loved ones, refer to the 2015 report Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families
(deVuono-powell, S., Schweidler, C., Walters, A., & Zohrabi, A (2015). Who Pays? The True
Cost of Incarceration on Families. Ella Baker Center, Forward Together and Research Action
Design.)
5	 New York City Division of Criminal Justice Services (2019). New York State Jail Population:
10 Year Trends: 2009 – 2018. Retrieved from https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/
ojsa/jail_pop_y.pdf
6	 Vera Institute of Justice (2019). Empire State of Incarceration. Retrieved from https://www.
vera.org/state-of-incarceration
7	 In Broome County, 290.9 people are incarcerated per every 100,000 adults. In New York City,
the rate of incarceration is 123.3 per 100,000. Vera Institute of Justice (2019). “Incarceration
Trends.” Retrieved from http://trends.vera.org/incarceration-rates?data=pretrial&fromProfile
=true
8	 U.S. Census Bureau (n.d.). “QuickFacts.” Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/
quickfacts/
9	 A few counties that responded without data requested payment in exchange for the
information.
10	 While this statistic is for people in state prison, we can assume a similar dynamic for people
in county jails. Kopf, D. & Rabuy, B. (2015, July 9). Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Preincarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from https://
www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html.

21

PAYING FOR JAIL
11	 deVuono-powell, S., Schweidler, C., Walters, A., & Zohrabi, A (2015). Who Pays? The True
Cost of Incarceration on Families. Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, Research Action
Design. Retrieved from https://ellabakercenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/whopays.pdf
12	 Jones, A. & Wagner, P. (2019). State of Phone Justice. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved from
https://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/state_of_phone_justice.html
13	 Data as of December 12, 2019. Global Tel*Link Connect Network (n.d.). Retrieved from
https://web.connectnetwork.com/. Securus Technologies (n.d.). Retrieved from https://
securustech.net/. ICSolutions (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.icsolutions.com/
14	 The most recent length of stay data is from 2015.
15	 Other Plans From Sprint. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sprint.com/en/shop/plans.
html?INTNAV=TopNav:Shop:AllPlans
16	 Deposit fees were estimated based on an average deposit amount of $12, or $15 with the $3
fee, based on information provided by the industry.
17	 U.S. Census Bureau (n.d.). “QuickFacts: New York.” Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/
quickfacts/.
18	 RentData (2019). “New York Fair Market Rent for 2019 Accurate Rental Price Data.” Retrieved
from https://www.rentdata.org/states/new-york/2019.
19	 Data as of December 12, 2019. Global Tel*Link Connect Network (n.d.). Retrieved from
https://web.connectnetwork.com/.
20	Federal Communications Commission (2016). “Consumer Guide Inmate Telephone Service.”
Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/sites/default/files/inmate_telephone_service.pdf
21	 The effective commission rate was calculated by dividing the commission revenue by the
total collected in call charges. It will differ from the average contractual commission of 51%
due to the FCC regulations that bar corporations from paying commissions on interstate
calls. Counties are also cut out of revenues generated on deposit and other fees.
22	Office of the New York City Comptroller Scott M. Singer (2018). The Public Cost of Private
Bail: A Proposal to Ban Bail Bonds in NYC. Retrieved from https://comptroller.nyc.gov/
newsroom/in-new-report-comptroller-stringer-calls-for-commercial-bail-bonds-to-be-bannedin-new-york-city-as-part-of-larger-overhaul-of-bail-system/
Brooklyn Community Bail Fund (2017). License & Registration, Please… Retrieved from
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5824a5aa579fb35e65295211/t/594c39758419c243f
db27cad/1498167672801/NYCBailBondReport_ExecSummary.pdf
23	Prison Policy Initiative (2017, April 10). “State and Federal Prison Wage Policies and Sourcing
Information.” Retrieved from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/wage_policies.html.
24 For more information on these efforts, visit https://www.drivenbyjustice.org/
25	According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2017, the estimated average time in jail was
26 days. Zeng, Z. (2019). “Jail Inmates in 2017.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from
https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ji17.pdf

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PAYING FOR JAIL

APPENDIX
FO I L R E QU E ST T E MP LATE
As a resource to other advocates who may be interested in obtaining data from
their local counties and jails, we have included the Freedom of Information Letter
(FOIL) we sent to the 57 counties in New York State.

Dear [County] County FOIL Officer:
We request the following regarding the operation of any and all County correctional
facilities under New York Public Officers Law Article 6 §84 - 90, Freedom of
Information Law. Please provide all information, data, regular and one-off reports,
contracts, internal or external correspondence, or any other records responsive to
this request.
1. Relating to inmate telephone or calling services, please provide
documentation of any contracts with private vendors to provide these
services, including third party vendors and subcontractors. Specifically, we
request:
1.

Names of any and all entities contracted to provide these
telecommunications services, the date of the initial engagement, the
duration of the contract, and the value of the contract to both the
contractor (e.g. revenues from the County, revenues from callers, etc.) and
the County (e.g. commission rate, commission prepayment, signing bonus,
etc.).

2. Data regarding calendar year 2017 calls originating from inmates in the
County jail facility. More specifically, the date and duration of each call
with a unique identifier for the calling inmate, at a minimum. Also, for the
same period, a summary that covers:
1.

The number of inmate calls made per day from the County jail,

2. The average length of an inmate call, and
3. Percentage of calls that are in-state versus inter-state (and governed
by FCC rate caps).
3. A copy of the up-to-date rate structure for inmate phone calls, for
both the caller and recipient, including variances for different types of
accounts and phone numbers as well as all related fees (e.g. voicemail,
video calling, etc.)
2. Relating to the operation of the facility commissary or equivalent entity
offering goods for purchase by inmates, please provide an itemized
description of the available goods with a price list, as well as revenue
generated for the County or contracting service provider. Specifically, we
request:

23

PAYING FOR JAIL
1.

If said commissary is operated by a single-source private contractor:
1.

A copy of the current service contract, including all currently
governing amendments.

2. A copy of the most recent menu of goods available for purchase by
inmates in the jail commissary and the price list.
3. Purchase records documenting the wholesale price list for goods sold in
the jail commissary purchased by the agency.
4. Any financial accounting records, including topline revenue and expenses
generated from the sale of goods to inmates for calendar year 2017.
1.

Statistics on per inmate revenue and expenditures, based on average
daily population for calendar year 2017.

3. Relating to disciplinary tickets for inmates, please provide an incident-level
report of calendar year 2017 monetary penalties assessed in connection such
tickets.
For each request, please specify whether (1) all relevant records have been
provided; (2) records exist but have been withheld; or (3) records are non-existent.
In the event that your agency believes any information contained in the above
records is not subject to public disclosure, please redact only the specific
information that is subject to confidentiality and provide the remainder of the
document(s). Please provide the specific statutory authority that you believe
justifies the redaction.
In the event that you withhold any records in their entirety, please include a
description of the documents withheld and the specific statutory authority that
you believe justifies the non-disclosure. Please also inform me of my rights to
appeal under law.
If your agency does not maintain certain requested public records, please inform
me who does and include the proper custodian’s name and address.
If my request is too broad or does not reasonably describe the records, please
contact me via email so that I may clarify my request, and when appropriate
inform me of the manner in which records are filed, retrieved, or generated. If all
of the requested records cannot be emailed to me, please inform me by email of
the portions that can be emailed and advise me of the cost for reproducing the
remainder of the records requested. We ask to receive all responses and records
electronically to [recipient agency].
As required by New York’s Freedom of Information Law, I expect to receive a
response within 5 business days. If you believe any part of this request justifies an
extension, I ask that you provide the specific reason that an extension is necessary
and date I can expect the requested records, and that you provide all of the other
records that do not require an extension within the 5 business day window.
Thank you,
[Your Name]

24

PAYING FOR JAIL
JA I L P H O N E C A L L R ATES
APPENDIX TABLE 1: NEW YORK JAIL PHONE
APPENDIX
TABLE 1:BY
NEW
YORK JAIL PHONE
CALL RATES, BY COUNTY (2019)
CALL
RATES,
COUNTY
(2019)

COUNTY

Provider

First Minute
(in-state)

Additional
Minutes (in-state)

15 Minute Call (instate)

ALBANY

Securus

$0.50

$0.50

$7.50

ALLEGANY

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

BROOME

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

CATTARAUGUS

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

CAYUGA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

CHAUTAUQUA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

CHEMUNG

GTL

$2.90

$0.40

$8.50

CHENANGO

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

CLINTON

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

COLUMBIA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

CORTLAND

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

DELAWARE

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

DUTCHESS

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ICSolutions

$0.21

$0.21

$3.15

ESSEX

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

FRANKLIN

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

FULTON

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

GENESEE

Securus

$0.50

$0.50

$7.50

GREENE

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

HAMILTON

N/A

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

HERKIMER

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

JEFFERSON

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ERIE

25

PAYING FOR JAIL

LEWIS

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

LIVINGSTON

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

MADISON

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

MONROE

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

MONTGOMERY

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

NASSAU

GTL

$1.95

$0.20

$4.75

Securus

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

NIAGARA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ONEIDA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ONONDAGA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ONTARIO

Securus

$0.21

$0.21

$3.15

ORANGE

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ORLEANS

ICSolutions

$0.21

$0.21

$3.15

OSWEGO

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

OTSEGO

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

PUTNAM

GTL

$1.85

$0.10

$3.25

RENSSELAER

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ROCKLAND

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

SARATOGA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

SCHENECTADY

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

SCHOHARIE

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

SCHUYLER

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

SENECA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ST. LAWRENCE

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

STEUBEN

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

NEW YORK CITY

26

SUFFOLK

Securus

$0.50

$0.50

$7.50

SULLIVAN

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

TIOGA

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

TOMPKINS

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

ICSolutions

$0.22

$0.22

$3.30

WARREN

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

WASHINGTON

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

WAYNE

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

WESTCHESTER

GTL

$1.95

$0.20

$4.75

WYOMING

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

YATES

GTL

$4.35

$0.40

$9.95

--

$3.55

$0.37

$8.67

ULSTER

AVERAGE

27

 

 

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