Connecticut Lawmakers Want to Try Again To Make Prison Phone Calls Completely Free

Originally published in The Intercept on February 22, 2021.
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CONNECTICUT LAWMAKERS ARE gearing up for their second attempt at passing a bill that would make prison phone and video calls free for incarcerated people and their loved ones.

A similar bill, introduced by state Rep. Josh Elliott, a progressive elected in 2016, and drafted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system, advanced in 2019 and passed out of the state’s House Judiciary Committee. But around the same time, Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation that Connecticut has contracted with since 2012, hired two lobbyists on a $40,000 retainer to fight the bill. Under direction from its parent company, Platinum Equity, Securus eventually backed off, but with two weeks left in the session and stonewalling from the state’s Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, it was too late.

Since that battle, Connecticut now boasts a new notorious title: It is now the most expensive state in the country for prison phone calls, after Arkansas renegotiated its rates. A 15-minute phone call between an incarcerated person in Connecticut and a family member costs nearly $5, at $0.21-$0.325 per minute. Rhode Island, its next-door neighbor for example, charges $0.029 per minute.

Advocates are feeling optimistic they have a better shot this time around and can make Connecticut the first state in the nation to eliminate the charges.

“There are very specific things that held up this bill in the past,” said Elliott, pointing to Securus’s lobbying in 2019, which required advocates to scramble at the end of the session. “That meant that we were chasing our tail a bit until Securus formally and publicly backed out of lobbying against our bill, recognizing what it looks like to be a contractor with the state while lobbying for their interests,” he said.

Jade Trombetta, a spokesperson for Securus, confirmed with The Intercept that they will not be lobbying on the bill this year and added that they’ve been working with Connecticut to offer different funding models, “including options to reduce rates and commissions and even rates that do not include commissions.”

Also this year, advocates have a powerful state senate sponsor in President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, who has introduced a version of the bill. “Having Looney be an introducer is a major step forward,” said Elliott.

In a February press briefing, Looney pointed to the fact that Connecticut is a state that uses commissions from its prison phone calls as a way to subsidize other parts of its corrections system. “That is really not an appropriate use,” he said.

Connecticut families spend over $14 million per year to talk to their loved ones behind bars, and under the negotiated contract, the state takes $7.7 million in kickbacks, with the rest going to Securus. In 2019, a spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch testified that losing prison phone call commission fees would mean the state would have to eliminate adult probation office positions.

Looney said he was supporting the legislation as a racial and economic justice priority. One study found more than one in three survey participants went into debt to cover phone and visitation costs, and that the costs landed disproportionately on Black and Latino women.

Decades of research have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones while incarcerated significantly improves an individual’s chance for successful reentry when they are released. “To sustain that contact becomes really costly every month, and the prisons tend to be located in remote, rural areas of the state,” said Looney. “Most prisoners come from the urban areas, distance to travel is hard and very expensive. … Many do not even have transportation.”

Lamont, who grew his personal fortune through the telecommunications industry, released his budget earlier this month and proposed allocating just $1 million to reduce the cost of prison phone calls. The Connecticut Connecting Families coalition blasted the governor for “backtracking,” noting that $1 million is just 20 percent of what Lamont had committed to in an address last year, before the pandemic.

Lamont’s office did not return multiple requests for comment on his budget proposal, or on whether the governor would support the phone justice legislation this year.

While it’s not yet clear where the money would come from to make up for the millions that Connecticut currently relies on in call commissions, Kevin Coughlin, a spokesperson for Looney, told The Intercept that those budgetary considerations will be hashed out over the next two months or so in the legislative session.

Advocates noted that Lamont recently announced the state will be closing three prisons in the coming months, to “right-size” Connecticut’s correctional system. The first one announced, Northern Correctional Institution, will offer millions in savings. Connecticut is also projecting a $70 million budget surplus this year, despite the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

THE PANDEMIC HAS shined new light on the exorbitant rates that prison-phone corporations charge for phone and video calls, as in-person visitation was largely impossible over the last year.

On the federal level, in the first stimulus package authorized by Congress, lawmakers included language to make all phone calls free from federal facilities throughout the pandemic. Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, said while they have worked to build allies in Congress, they were still surprised to see that measure included in the CARES Act.

In late March, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., also introduced a bill to expand the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state prison phone calls (where most prison phone calls occur) and bar state and local governments from collecting commissions from the calls. It was included in the HEROES Act that passed the House in May, and Tylek called it “the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history.”

There was momentum to push companion legislation through the Senate too, with 17 Democratic Senators urging it as a priority, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth. But the real gatekeeper in the Senate was Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and he would not commit to supporting the bill.

Since Democrats took control of the Senate in January, Wicker is no longer chair, and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington is now leading the committee. Cantwell was not one of the 17 Democrats to sign the letter last year urging the passage of the phone justice bill, and her office did not return multiple requests for comment.

This past summer, in another development that surprised longtime advocates, then-FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, announced a new proposed rule for lowering the rates of interstate prison calls and for capping rates of international prison calls for the first time. Pai also urged state utility commissioners to take action on intrastate calls, which he rightly noted disproportionately impacts Black Americans.

With the election of Joe Biden, Pai is now gone, but the new Acting FCC Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, has long supported efforts to address the high cost of prison communications. Earlier this year, in response to Pai’s proposed rule, Rosenworcel said the FCC “should be embarrassed” that it has taken them so long to address this problem.

An FCC spokesperson told The Intercept that “addressing the high costs of phone service for the incarcerated and their families is a priority for the Acting Chairwoman. She hopes to move forward with the FCC’s effort to curb these rates in the near future.”

Mike Gwin, a spokesperson for the Biden administration, did not have comment on the FCC specifically, but he pointed to Biden’s campaign pledge to support the passage of Duckworth’s legislation that would expand the FCC’s authority to regulate prison phone calls. His campaign website promised to “crack down on the practice of private companies charging incarcerated individuals and their families outrageously high fees to make calls.”

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.