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January 17, 2007 - Newsday (NY)

Editorial: Spitzer's Call The Right One

By Sheryl McCarthy

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In the end, all it took was the word of the governor to get rid of a prison phone system that exploited the families of prison inmates.

That's what Eliot Spitzer did on his eighth day in office. After years of public protests, intense lobbying in Albany, marches to the office of former Gov. George Pataki, introducing bills that went nowhere and a lawsuit that is still wending its way through the state courts, the governor took decisive action.

He announced last week that he was directing the state's budget division to no longer count on the $16 million in yearly commissions it has been receiving out of the phone company's excessive profits.

"It was a no-brainer," said Cheri O'Donaghue, who with her husband has been paying $300 to $400 a month to receive collect phone calls from their son, who's incarcerated at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate Sullivan County.

"It was just a matter of having someone who had some compassion and who would just do it and, thankfully, we have a new administration that feels that way," she said.

The end of the 10-year contract - under which the phone company paid 57 percent of its profits to the state Department of Correction - means that as of April 1, the cost of a 20-minute collect phone call from a state prison inmate to his family or loved ones will be cut in half, from about $6.20 to about $3.

"The governor's position is that the state shouldn't be receiving a commission on services that it offers," his spokesman told me.

For the last seven years, I've been writing about this oppressive phone system that was part of a monopoly agreement with MCI, which is now known as Verizon Business.

The company charged regular phone users about 3 to 5 cents a minute, but charged state prison inmates a $3 connection fee and 16 cents a minute. They were also required to make collect calls only. Now the state will have to replace the money from the phone commissions with general funds.

"I'm elated and relieved," said O'Donaghue, a magazine editor whose son is serving a 7- to 21-year sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws for the attempted sale of cocaine to an undercover officer.

State correction officials rationalized the phone system's expense because the phone company commission went to pay for family and inmate services, such as nurseries for women in prison, medical treatment for inmates with AIDS and family reunification programs, and claimed it also paid for the extra security costs of maintaining a prison phone system.

But the burden of paying for these prison services fell not on the correction department, but the inmates' families. And few people seemed to care.

It was as if, "Well, it's just prisoners, so make their families pay."

Nor did the costs of securing the prison phone calls justify the charges. The federal prison system gives inmates access to calls for about 7 cents a minute.

City detainees on Rikers Island use a debit system, whereby the cost of phone calls is deducted from their commissary accounts. Both systems are much cheaper than New York State's.

Annette Dickerson, who coordinated the Campaign for Telephone Justice for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she was pleased by Spitzer's actions.

Several years ago, the center filed a lawsuit in state court, challenging the phone system on behalf of the 65,000 state prison inmates. Last week, the state Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in an appeal of a lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, bills introduced in the State Legislature to abolish the commission system passed the Assembly for two years straight, but died in the Senate, primarily because the legislators didn't want to have to come up with money to replace the phone company funds.

Assemb. Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Corona), who sponsored the assembly bills, said he was delighted when he was summoned to the governor's office on Tuesday and given the news.

The chairman of the assembly correction committee, Aubrion told me he'd also like to see the state improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates, many of whom are held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown with few mental health services. And further reforms are needed to the still-onerous Rockefeller drug laws.

But ending the injustice of the prison phone system was an auspicious start for the new governor.

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