Can sheriffs collect lucrative commissions from inmate phone calls?

Can sheriffs collect lucrative commissions from inmate phone calls?

Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments in case seeking to limit fees

Commonwealth Magazine
October 27, 2021
By Shira Schoenberg

FOR YEARS, Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson’s office collected hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in telephone fees paid by family members, attorneys, and others who received calls from county jail inmates. 

Similar structures are set up across the state’s county jail system, and advocates for prisoners have long been trying to get the Legislature to curb the at times exorbitant fees charged by jails for inmate phone calls. They say the fees exploit low-income families and make it difficult – and costly – for inmates to maintain ties that help them during their incarceration and make it easier for them to reintegrate into society once they are released. 

On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Court will hear a case involving Hodgson’s office, which could limit county sheriffs’ ability to profit from telephone calls from jail by eliminating their authority to collect commissions from telephone companies handling inmate calls. 

Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services, which is representing plaintiffs who are challenging the fees, argues that the way contracts are set up incentivizes sheriffs to choose a bid that benefits their office, rather than the inmates. “These kickbacks provide perverse incentive for counties to not get the lowest rate but get the best commission,” she said. 

The facts of the case are straightforward. In 2011, Hodgson entered a contract with Securus, a private telecommunications service, to provide phone service in the Bristol House of Correction. Under that agreement, Securus would pay the sheriff’s office 48 percent of gross revenues from all calls that were made, plus annual payments of $205,000 for administrators and technology. Hodgson received more than $1 million in commissions between August 2011 and June 2013. The money was collected from recipients of calls from inmates. (When an inmate calls someone, it is the person who accepts the call, not the inmate, who pays.) 

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