Roberto dela Rosa’s mother has been in detention centers for almost two years, trying to get refugee status to stay in the United States. During the first year, his mother was transferred to different detention centers several times, and all of the bouncing around and the expense of phone calls kept dela Rosa from being able to talk to his mother at all, he says.
Talking to his mother hasn’t been any easier over the past year since she has been in the West County Detention Facility (WCDF) in Richmond, which holds county inmates, people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and candidates for realignment, a state initiative to transfer low-level offenders from state to county supervision.
Every time dela Rosa wants to talk to his mother, he deposits about $50 into her account with the detention center to get about 15 minutes of phone time. And since phone time is so expensive, dela Rosa tries to plan out what they will talk about to best maximize the conversation. But those plans evaporate when the call is dropped, which happens often, dela Rosa says. “Right after you make that phone call, your call gets dropped, you have to make another phone call,” he says.
To reconnect, dela Rosa has to pay the $3.25 for the first minute again. Then it’s 25 cents a minute after that. Out of state calls cost $3.55 for the first minute and 55 cents a minute after that.
On the Friday just before Mother’s Day, members from several Richmond organizations and churches gathered in front of the West County Detention Center to bring attention to how expensive it is to communicate from the inside. Everyone stood in a circle, holding signs that read “Detained mothers have the right to call home” and singing songs with lyrics like “Sweet mother/I will never forget you/For what you suffered for me.”
“For you and me at home, we pay very little for our phone calls,” says Marilyn Langlois, a steering committee member for the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which participated in the event. “Here it’s many many times more expensive and that price is overwhelmingly being picked up by the inmates themselves and the loved ones, especially the loved ones on the outside who have done nothing wrong at all.”
There are many mothers inside the facility, as well as sons and daughters, Langlois says. “They love their children no matter where they are and they want to keep in touch with them,” she says. “But there are many mothers who can’t afford to accept all these calls.”
Though the group used the opportunity of Mother’s Day to draw attention to the issue, the expense of communicating with the outside world is a consistent problem for detainees. A smooth reintroduction back into society from detention centers reduces recidivism rates, Langlois says, and maintaining strong familial and social connections is crucial to that process. But without the means to make phone calls, this communication may be impossible, she says.
According to Intergovernmental Service agreements put out by the US Department of Justice, currently, the phone system at the facility is run by Global Tel*Link, which paid Contra Costa County $75,000 for an exclusive contract with WCDF, which is run by the county. In exchange, the county gets 57 percent of Global Tel*Link’s profits. In 2012 Global Tel*Links paid the county $653,506 from profits made off calls made to the outside from inmates.
“It’s a great hardship on [the inmates’] very meager resources, so it’s an injustice,” Langlois says about the cost of the calls. “There is a lot of profit going on from the telecommunication companies and we think it is the wrong place for them to make their profit.”
Representatives from Global Tel*Link and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office did not return calls for comment.
Abesulom Taye, who attended the protest, said he accrued over $2,000 in debt making phone calls to his 11-year old son and his lawyer during a seven-month stint in the WCDF. He was released last week and came to tears when he spoke about his situation to those gathered on Friday.
According to Taye, he immigrated from Ethopia with his parents when he was a teenager. Like many teenagers, he found trouble. In 1998, Taye was arrested on a minor marijuana charge. That is when ICE stepped into Taye’s life. For the next decade, Taye says, he would fight with ICE over his immigration status. During that time, Taye cleaned up his behavior, got a stable job, and had a son, whom he has full custody of today.
Communication with the outside world from within a jail is especially challenging for immigrants, says Kyra Lilien, a lawyer with Centro Legal de la Raza, who attended the rally. ICE is a federally operated agency, which means that people picked up by immigration enforcement can and often end up in jails that are hundreds or thousands of miles from their friends and families.
In order to call their friends and families, the immigrants need put money in an account that will pay for their phone calls. But they can’t have money in that account without the help from the same friends and families who can’t possibly know where they are or what to do, Lilien says. “It’s a catch-22,” she says.
Adding to the hardships the immigrants face in detention center, there are no public defenders for deportation trials, meaning that the immigrants must find their own lawyers if they want legal representation in their own deportation trials. Without the financial means to call lawyers, or even to call their families to find lawyers, most immigrants in the ICE system must represent themselves in deportation proceedings, Lilien says.
“They just put you in and walk away,” Taye agreed. He teared up when he talked about it, standing in front of the jail that he had been released from less than a week before. “These are tears of happiness,” he says, because he feels surrounded by people who want to help detainees stay in touch with the outside world.