After a years-long legal battle between the Prisoners Legal Services organization and Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson regarding his office's policy to charge for inmate phone calls, the Commonwealth's highest court recently ruled in favor of Hodgson.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the 2009 Act Transferring County Sheriffs to the Commonwealth specifically states that a sheriff's office can keep revenues sourced from "inmate telephone and commissary funds."

“This is absolutely a win for taxpayers,” Sheriff Hodgson said. “It has always been my belief as the Sheriff of Bristol County that one of my most fundamental responsibilities it to minimize the burden on taxpayers for the rising costs of prison operations."

However, despite the legal authority outlined by the court, opponents of the law still believe there is still an ethical question of whether county sheriffs' offices should generate revenue by charging mostly low-income individuals and families for phone calls.

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The three candidates in the Democratic primary competing for the right to challenge Hodgson in the general election this fall – former Somerset Police Chief George McNeil, Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, and former prosecutor Nick Bernier – all oppose this policy and say that they would discontinue it if elected sheriff.

McNeil said that Hodgson's argument that this policy saves taxpayer money is avoiding the core issue, which is that the Sheriff's Office is restricting an inmates ability to have regular contact with the outside world.

“The original reason for the lawsuit isn’t mentioned by the sheriff. He should bring that up,” McNeil told WBSM. “What he is doing is cutting off contact with the outside world because the families cant afford the fees, and the individuals in prison cant afford the fees. So contact has been cut off indirectly by him.” 

McNeil points out that consistent contact with the outside world to include family and other supports is a proven way to reduce recidivism. Recidivism is generally defined an incarcerated individuals propensity to reoffend. McNeil said that this policy “speaks to the draconian policies of the current sheriff," and that he thinks there are more effective ways to save on taxpayer dollars like reorganizing the Sheriff's Office to include fewer administrators and less salary.

Heroux, a former corrections administrator, said that charging inmates for phone calls as a measure of tax-payer reduction is "shortsighted" and that he would focus on proven methods of reducing recidivism to save taxpayer dollars.

"The letter of the law may allow the sheriff to charge inmates for phone calls; however it does not mean that it is a good practice as phone calls are a lot less expensive than recidivism," Mayor Heroux said to WBSM.

"This is one of the differences between me and the current sheriff. The current sheriff wants to be punitive and say it's about public safety and saving taxpayer dollars," Heroux added. "Those are simplistic talking points and his practices are not supported by any actual evidence. Simplistic talking points like that don't reflect a modern approach that focuses on discharge planning (including maintaining contact with family members) and successful prisoner reentry to stop the revolving door of recidivism, which saves more money."

Heroux also expressed confidence that this policy will soon come to an end via a change in the law by the state legislature.

"The House of Representatives recognizes the importance of contact with families for discharge planning and successful prisoner reentry and that is why they are moving to support funding for phone calls, and stopping the kickbacks to private corporations profiting on poor families," he said.

Bernier expressed similar expectations of the state legislature and said the legal fees incurred by the extensive litigation to defend this policy may have resulted in a net loss to the taxpayers as well.

“This is just an example of Tom Hodgson being penny wise but pound foolish. I’m interested to learn how much money was spent on legal fees and compare that to the 'revenue' generated, especially since the Massachusetts legislature is currently in the process of banning said practice," he said.

The FY2023 budget recently passed by the State House of Representatives has an amendment that requires prisons to provide inmate phone calls free of charge and establishes a $20 million fund to reimburse state and county correctional facilities for the cost of providing phone services. This amendment isn't yet added to the Senate's budget but could eventually be added to the final bill before it reaches Governor Charlie Baker's desk.

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