Prior to COVID-19, text messages were free for Miami's ICE detainees; not anymore

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Jose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald/TNS

MIAMI — Just when they say they need it most, immigration detainees in Miami-Dade County say the federal government and its telecommunications contractor have made it more costly to communicate with the outside world during the global health pandemic.

“Texting our families used to be free, but about three months ago they changed that,” said one of 16 detainees interviewed by the Miami Herald for this story. Because of their immigration status, the Herald has agreed to not reveal names.

“We are living through a pandemic; this is when we need to communicate the most,” the Guatemalan national, who is being held at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade, said in Spanish. “People are dying of COVID and they are either trying to make a profit or silence us.”

According to the detainees, immigration advocates and lawyers, reading inbound texts and sending outbound text messages — a feature that detainees and advocates say has always been free of charge for detainees — is now costing money via the messaging application on the detention centers’ communal tablets. Detainees say they are being charged 5 cents per minute to read or send messages.

“When you log in, it shows you a free section and a section where you have to pay,” said one Krome detainee. “The text message section was free; now it’s not.”

Monitored tablets that sit on mounted docks as well as payphones on the wall are available for use if family members or friends deposit money into detainees’ accounts. During the day, detainees wait in long lines to talk to their loved ones. Because in-person visitation has been suspended during the pandemic, lines to use them are longer, and so are the conversations, detainees say.

In order to talk to make phone calls, send texts or set up a video chat with friends or family, family members have to deposit money into a detainee’s communication account. If there is no money in the account, the detainee has the option of calling collect. Detainee communication accounts are separate from commissary accounts, which are used to purchase extras like potato chips, candy or soda from the snack shop.

“Because of COVID, my wife thinks I’m gonna die behind bars, and I’m afraid for my children. Since March, we text more than ever because the anxiety is worse than ever,” one Dominican national told the Herald.

Rebecca Talbot, a lead volunteer at Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, a small detention visitation program at Krome, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, said complaints began to surge since late May.

“This further isolates them and cuts off the one communication option that was consistently free for them,” said Talbot, a lead volunteer at the Miami-based organization. Since 2014, the tiny nonprofit has made it its mission to deposit funds into detainee accounts so that they can communicate with their families. Now, for the first time in its history, Talbot says the group has run out of funds.

“In some instances, our volunteers are using their own money to communicate with detainees or connect detainees with family members who can’t afford the exorbitant expenses,” said Bud Conlin, who works with Talbot. The group used to raise about $2,000 a month but now needs double the money.

“Prices used to be sky-high just for calling. Implementing new charges on the texting side adds up quickly. If it’s a burden for us on the outside to pay, imagine how hard it must be for the people inside,” Conlin said. “This further isolates detained people during COVID — a time when there is no family and friend visitation and access to attorneys is already limited.”

On average, when the messages were free to the detainees, detainee’s family members, who are charged 25 cents for each outgoing message, budgeted anywhere from $100 to $200 a month, which equals 13 to 26 text messages a day.

“And that’s the conservative amount spent because families try to keep conversations short. But now our families are tasked with finding money to pay for the detainee’s texts too,” a Haitian national said during a phone interview last week.

When the Herald reached out to Talton Communications, the company contracted to service all phone, text, and video communication platforms at Krome, Mike Oslund, the company’s president, refused to comment and directed any questions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees detention centers.

ICE denied there have been any changes. In an email, ICE spokesperson Nestor Yglesias said “detainees have always paid for ‘texting’ or messaging with the tablet at Krome Detention Center and at the Broward Transitional Center. Detainees pay a flat fee, .05 cents per minute, to use the tablet. They could be watching a movie/games and texting at the same time; this might be perceived as free but it is included during the .05 cents flat rate.”

But immigration lawyers say that is not true. Jessica Schneider, director of Americans for Immigrant Justice’s detention program — a Florida organization that provides free legal services said that some detainees “are now unable to communicate with us about coordinating their legal consultation via the tablet system, which is the main way AI Justice is coordinating intakes right now for people detained.”

“The burden should not be placed on the detained individual as they work to access legal information and an attorney, like is currently occurring at Krome,” Schneider said. “Attorney access, even to a free legal consultation that AI Justice provides, should not be predicated on an individual’s ability to pay for exorbitant phone and text fees.”

Juan Carlos Gomez, director of Florida International University’s immigration law clinic, said “the system plays to the strengths of people with money. The pandemic just adds to the problem.”

“It’s simple: The poor are impacted disproportionately. And unfortunately, many of the people in detention — who are people of color — barely had the means to put food on the table for their families when they were outside of detention,” he said. “If you put that into perspective, even more so now, they don’t have the means to pay exorbitant fees to communicate, and neither do their families, who are struggling to survive because they are not getting that second income while they are behind bars.”

He added: “Being of color and poor is already a challenge in Miami. Now imagine being of color, poor and undocumented.”

For one Venezuelan national at Krome, the lack of access to free text messages means his family in Venezuela has to choose between communication and basic necessities like toothpaste or milk in a country suffering high levels of urban violence, inflation, and chronic shortages of basic goods and services.

“Some of my family is eating out of garbage cans. I have no family in the U.S. so I’ve relied on donations from friends who sometimes put a few bucks in my account,” the detainee said.

Said another detainee, who is from Mexico: “My wife lost her job in Florida during COVID so there’s no money to pay for phone calls. I used to rely on the free texts to communicate and check in on my two kids. Now I go days, sometimes a week without communicating.”

Christina M. Fialho, a lawyer and executive director of a national nonprofit called Freedom for Immigrants, says the cost of communicating with the outside world from inside immigration detention has always been expensive. So much so, that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone rates at jails, prisons and detention centers, capped the cost of interstate phone calls in 2015.

However, intrastate and international phone calls remain “exorbitant and largely unregulated.”

“The same goes for texting and video components of these applications that service jails, prisons and detention centers; they are completely unregulated so the bill builds quickly,” Fialho said. “That means officials can charge exorbitant rates to family members to visit or chat with their loved ones. Some facilities even have a video-only visitation policy, which deters in person visits to the facility and eliminates human contact.”

In the coming weeks or months, a new proposed rule by the FCC is expected to be published in the Federal Register to level the rates of intrastate and international calls. Intrastate calls, made within the state from Krome, currently cost 9 cents a minute. Interstate phone calls cost 14 cents a minute.

Other facilities in Florida charge as high as 45 cents per minute. The rates are negotiated by the operators of the detention centers, whether that is ICE itself, or a private company or a local sheriff’s office that contract with the U.S. government to operate detention centers.

“As the FCC moves toward proposing to reduce the cost of international calling from correctional and detention facilities, we are again seeing prison phone companies expand their shady profit tactics,” Fialho said, who noted that since March, advocates across the country have been calling on ICE and prison phone companies to offer free video visitation and free phone calls.

“ICE has adopted a head-in-the-sand approach and ignored our requests, and prison phone companies have done the opposite by increasing rates. In other words, we are seeing increased charges for text messages, emails, and video visitation. This pattern is particularly disgusting at a time when all social visitation to immigration detention has been suspended due to the pandemic.”

“Before, my pockets were empty, my family and my bank account was broke. It was hard to get what we needed to live,” a Haitian detainee told the Herald over the phone.

“But now?” he paused. “Now my soul feels broke knowing I can’t even read messages from my children.”

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