By Kevin Deutsch
Responding to a Bronx Justice News report revealing how corporations are making millions in profits off money transfers to New York City prisoners, Councilman Keith Powers on Monday called for the limiting or removal of those surcharges.
“Given the criminal justice reforms reached at both the City and State levels, it’s concerning that these vendors are profiting off of commissary fees,” said Powers, who co-sponsored legislation passed in April that will eliminate fees on bail payments made by credit card. “My law…. eliminates fees associated with paying bail, lessening the burden of non-refundable fines put on those involved with the justice system. There needs to be continued work to limit and remove these fees in jails.”
Two corporations, Western Union and JPay, earn up to $11.95 from every deposit made to the commissary accounts of prisoners in city jails. This, despite a state law that imposes a maximum service fee of $5 on all electronic money transfers made to prisoners’ institutional accounts, including those belonging to the 8,000 or so inmates held in city jails each day, mostly on Rikers Island.
The reason the city doesn’t abide by the $5 limit: the state Correction Commission has passed a variance each of the last ten years, most recently in June, allowing the city Department of Correction to ignore the fee cap.
The city DOC–New York’s largest municipal jailer–is the only agency in the state that receives such a variance, officials said.
Bronx Justice News last week revealed the fees after obtaining documents that describe the corporate surcharges, and the city’s rationale for allowing Western Union and JPay to impose them.
The documents, which include a variance application sent by DOC Commissioner Cythia Brann to state Correction Commission Chairman Allen Riley, show the corporations took a cut from 123,431 deposits made to city inmates during the six-month period ending March 31, 2019.
The total amount sent to inmates during that period, according to the records: $6,338,270. Over the course of a full year, that amount would generate more than $1.2 million in service fees, even if the legally permitted, $5 per-transaction fee cap were in place.
With the state-granted variance, fee experts said, local revenues for the companies are far higher.
The Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to eliminate surcharges like the ones imposed by the corporations, last week called on New York State to stop granting the variances, and on the City Council to pass legislation eliminating the fees.
The DOC has defended their use of the variance, arguing that, were the $5 legal limit imposed, it would “essentially prevent the vendors, who currently make electronic deposits available to family and friends of DOC inmates, from continuing to provide those services, except for the most minimal of transactions.”
DOC called the more expensive rates “demonstrably affordable to both the companies and the public,” arguing that the local market could not bear “an artificial maximum” on deposit surcharge fees. The DOC does not make any money on the transactions, an agency spokesman said.
A fee chart on JPay’s website shows the company charges $3.95 for online deposits of $20 or less to Rikers Island inmates; $6.95 for deposits of $20.01 to $100; $8.95 for deposits of $100.01 to $200; and $10.95 for deposits of $200.01 to $300. Deposits made by phone carry an additional $1 fee.
In its application, DOC said it still allows visitors to use the “less convenient method” of making cash-only deposits to inmate accounts, free of charge, at the “Rikers Island Central Cashiers” and at “each of the current operating borough facilities’ cashiers.”
Currently, DOC accepts nearly 20,600 “for fee” deposits per month through Western Union and JPay, the documents show.
Sasha Gonzales contributed reporting.