Free Prison Calls Could Be Coming to Connecticut

Originally published in The Intercept on April 2, 2019.
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CONNECTICUT MAY SOON be the first state in the nation to make calls from prison free for incarcerated people and their families, following on the heels of New York City, which became the first city to do so last year. Decades of research have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones while incarcerated greatly improves an individual’s chance for successful re-entry when they are released and that the financial toll of maintaining contact disproportionately falls on low-income family members.

A hearing for the bill — H.B. No. 6714 — was held in Hartford in late March, and advocates are cautiously optimistic it will be voted out of the state’s House Judiciary Committee next week. The bill was introduced by Rep. Josh Elliott, a progressive elected in 2016 to represent Connecticut’s 88th District, and drafted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system.

According to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut charges more for in-prison phone calls than any other state in the nation aside from Arkansas. A 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, nearly five times the cost of calls from prisons in neighboring states like Rhode Island and New York (71 cents and 65 cents, respectively). Advocates say the high rates are due to Connecticut poorly negotiating its telecommunications contract with Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation it has contracted with since 2012.

In addition to making phone calls free, the bill includes language stipulating that if Connecticut implements video conferencing for prisoners in the future — which it doesn’t currently offer, but other states have slowly begun to — then those communications should be free of charge too. The bill also maintains that Connecticut shall not limit in-person visitation if it makes phone calls and video conferences free. (The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 74 percent of U.S. correctional facilities have reduced or eliminated in-person visitation since implementing video conferencing.)

A Securus spokesperson noted that their company offers not only a way for families to keep in touch but also “critical security features that prevent victim harassment, violent crime and other criminal activity.” With respect to the jurisdictions considering paying directly using taxpayer funds, the Securus spokesperson said, “we welcome discussions regarding financing models with all the agencies we serve, in order to determine the most effective way to pay for technology that keeps people both connected and safe.”

Karen Martucci, the director of external affairs for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said her agency “is supportive of efforts that increase communication between offenders and their loved ones, which will hopefully help to reduce the rate of recidivism.”

State data shows that Connecticut residents pay roughly $15 million annually for prison phone calls, with the state taking 68 percent as a kickback. A spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch testified at the hearing that losing prison phone call commission fees would result in cutting several important adult probation officer positions, illustrating how the state relies on revenue extracted from incarcerated people and their families.

One Republican legislator, Rep. Craig Fishbein from Wallingford, raised objections at the hearing and suggested that the bill would be too expensive and would seemingly allow for unlimited calls every day. He suggested making calls free on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, instead.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, dismissed Fishbein’s proposal and told The Intercept that his comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what advocates aim to achieve with the legislation.

“This bill was not introduced so people can talk on Christmas. It’s so family ties can be fostered, which we know leads to so many improved outcomes for children with incarcerated parents, for people on the inside to lower recidivism, and improving re-entry outcomes on the outside,” she said. “None of that is resolved with a few free days throughout the year.”

THE EXORBITANT COST of prison phone calls exacts a heavy psychic price as well. Some prisoners are able to use their meager prison wages to cover the costs, which leaves them with no savings when they finish their sentence. Many, though, must rely on family members to pick up the tab. Every minute they’re on the phone, they’re aware of the literal cost their incarceration is putting on their loved ones, straining the types of relationships that are key to re-entry.

If the state of Connecticut assumed the costs of prison phone calls, Tylek said, it should revise its contract with Securus or another company to be a flat, fixed rate.

“It would be absolutely inappropriate and imprudent for the state to continue to pay for a contract that assumes the liability of costs on a per-minute basis,” she said. “Think about your state legislature. All elected officials have telephones in their offices, and some provider, maybe it’s Verizon or AT&T — that provider isn’t saying to the state legislator you’ll pay on a per-minute basis. In no place in the country are we doing that except in prisons.”

Tylek also dismissed the idea that this would mean people would have unfettered access to phones, noting prisons still need to establish systems so that the phones can be shared equitably. Tylek suggested that a solution may be limiting phone use to 90 minutes per day (or up to six 15-minute phone calls). “We’ve done surveys across the country and found that, on average, 90-120 minutes is what people are looking for, so we might actually look to codify something like that in the bill,” she said.

New York City passed a law in August 2018 to eliminate the charge for prison phone calls, making it the first city to do so; the change is set to go into effect in May. New York City will assume the costs of paying Securus for the phone services and will forego the $5 million it had annually collected in commission fees.

Aside from Connecticut and New York City, other states and cities are now also considering eliminating phone costs on prisoners and their families, including Massachusetts and San Francisco. In November, Shelby County, Tennessee, announced it would no longer charge juvenile detainees and their families for making phone calls; shortly thereafter, in North Carolina, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office also agreed to stop charging juveniles in custody at county jails for using phones.

The new legislative traction comes after years of activists raising alarm about the high costs of prison phone calls. In 2000, Martha Wright, a grandmother in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying that the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the Federal Communications Commission to handle; she then moved to petition them to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons. Two years later, the FCC also capped the amount an incarcerated person could be charged for calling someone within their state.

The major prison telecommunication providers — including Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link, and CenturyLink — all challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate the rates, and in 2017, the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against the FCC. As The Intercept reported at the time, the court decision came amid political turnover at the federal agency, with the individual who voted against the FCC’s 2013 proposal, Ajit Pai, having been recently named commission chair by President Donald Trump. Pai praised the D.C Circuit for agreeing with him that the FCC overstepped its authority.

Last month, the National Consumer Law Center issued a new report detailing consumer abuses wrought by private companies that extract profits from the criminal legal system and highlighted the kickbacks that cash-strapped governments accept in exchange for things like offering exclusive contracts.

Report author Brian Highsmith, who testified in favor of Connecticut’s bill to make prison phone calls free, told The Intercept that it’s important for the public to understand that this is not just a criminal justice issue, but a fiscal policy and consumer protection issue too.

“Candidly, that changes the advocacy strategy,” he said. “One of the reasons we have arrived at this moment, in having created a system of mass incarceration and social control, is because it’s very easy for people to imagine that this stuff doesn’t affect you, and so many of these abusive practices have escaped widespread public awareness.”

While Highsmith thinks there can be a role for the federal government to play, he emphasized that many of these exploitative policies are set at the state and local level, and so will have to be tackled with laws like the ones proposed in Connecticut.

“This all really gets at the intersection of two of the worst trends,” he said. “One is offloading tasks to the private sector, which comes with reduced accountability and transparency, and the other is cost-shifting,” where governments rely on bails, fines, and fees imposed on people who interact with the criminal legal system to cover the costs of policing.

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