SJC says sheriffs can charge commissions for prison phone calls

SJC says sheriffs can charge commissions for prison phone calls

Court leaves issue up to Legislature

Commonwealth Magazine
By Shira Schoenberg
May 17, 2022

MASSACHUSETTS SHERIFFS HAVE the legal authority to raise revenue from contracts for inmate phone calls, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, whose office was at the center of the lawsuit, called the decision “a win for taxpayers.” “In a decision released today by the SJC, the court has supported my efforts allowing my fellow sheriffs and I the authority to generate outside revenues rather than looking to our residents, who are already overburdened by rising costs and financial hurdles brought on by record inflation,” Hodgson said in a statement. “This decision is not only a victory for the taxpayers and citizens of Massachusetts, but also for sheriffs who continue to manage our corrections operations in a fiscally responsible manner.”

The case stemmed from policies implemented by Hodgson, who had for years collected hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in fees charged to inmates and their loved ones for telephone calls. Although the conservative Republican sheriff has been a lightning rod for criticism over a range of tough prison policies, the contract is not unique. Almost all the county jails in the state have at times charged high rates for phone calls, though the practice has recently become more limited. Hodgson’s office said the revenue pays for the phone technology and for prison programs.

A group of former inmates, an attorney’s office, and a family member of a former inmate, represented by Prisoners’ Legal Services, the National Consumer Law Center, and private attorneys sued over Hodgson’s contracts. They argued that a 2009 state law, which brought the county sheriffs under the control of state government, does not allow sheriffs to charge inflated fees and collect commissions from inmate phone calls.

Jim Pingeon, litigation director at Prisoners’ Legal Services, said the decision essentially throws the question back to the Legislature. “From our perspective, this decision makes it clear that the Legislature needs to take action to pass the bill that’s pending before it that would make telephone costs free to families,” Pingeon said.

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