Rikers Island, site of an upcoming voter registration drive for detained New Yorkers. AP Photo by Seth Wenig.

Free Phone Calls, Voter Registration Drive Come to Rikers

By David Brand
Queens Daily Eagle

Perhaps the Rikers detainees will use their free phone calls to contact their elected officials.

New York will soon become the first major city in the U.S. to offer free phone calls from jails. The city will also launch the first-ever voter registration drive

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law that enables detainees to make free telephone calls. The law will take effect in nine months.

Local calls from Rikers Island cost 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute, but many are the detainees are poor and cannot afford the calls.

The effort is part of a nationwide effort by prison-rights groups, public defenders and prisoners’ families to limit private companies from profiting off incarceration.

“Some children have to pay $1/minute to talk to an incarcerated parent,” the Prison Policy Initiative states on its website. “Why? Because prisons and jails profit by granting monopoly telephone contracts to the company that will charge families the most.”

The organization advocates for an end to “telephone greed,” which prevents low-income prisoners and detainees from talking with family members.

Thanks to another move by the mayor, candidates running in the upcoming primaries and general elections will now be more accountable to their constituents awaiting trial on the island.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that the City will launch a voter registration drive to help incarcerated individuals exercise their right to vote.

For the first time ever, the City will facilitate direct pick-up and delivery of voter registration forms and absentee ballots, bypassing the jail mailing system to ensure timely delivery of paperwork.

The effort is being led in partnership with the Department of Correction, the Legal Aid Society and the Campaign Finance Board.

“Voting access must be expanded and protected in our city. That applies to everyone, including people in custody,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “This initiative will help more incarcerated New Yorkers participate in our democracy and have their voices heard.”

Prisoners who have been convicted of a crime cannot vote in New York State until they complete probation or parole, but most roughly three-quarters of Rikers detainees have not been convicted of a crime. They are in jail while awaiting trial, often because they cannot afford bail.

DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said her department had a “duty” to meet the constitutional rights of the Rikers detainees — including the right to vote.

“Even though most people in our custody are here only a short time, it is our duty to help them by ensuring that they have appropriate access to the electoral process,” Brann said. “Reminding the incarcerated that their vote matters is a powerful way of reinforcing their ties to our community and is just as important as the many job training and re-entry programs we offer every day.”

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