CT prepares for free phone calls behind bars

A now vacant block at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers. (Archive photo by Christine Stuart)

With Governor Ned Lamont’s stroke of the pen on Wednesday, Connecticut was on track to become the first state in the country to provide free phone calls to incarcerated people and their families.

The passage ends a three-year battle in which advocates, including Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, have repeatedly pointed out that families of incarcerated loved ones pay a state commission of 68% on all calls in the state, totaling $ 12.8 million per year.

“It’s a privilege to have been in such an important fight,” said Elliott. “Connecticut has now set an example for the rest of the country and we are on the right side of history. Businesses can no longer be allowed to exploit the love between incarcerated people and their families – neither in our state nor under our supervision. “

The calls, which currently cost around $ 4.50 for 15 minutes, have affected people like Diane Lewis, whose son has been in jail for 14 years. Lewis has supported Elliott’s drive for free jail calls on several occasions over the past few years, telling lawmakers she would pay the jail phone bill before her electric bill just so she can hear his son’s voice.

“Finally, thanks to the hard work and persistence of advocates like me, Connecticut mothers can no longer be forced to choose between communicating with their incarcerated children and paying their bills,” Lewis said. “I am so proud of what we have accomplished. Our state has gone from being the worst in the country in affordability of prison phone calls to being the first in allowing a loved one in prison to call for free. “

Elliott also garnered support from Northeastern criminal justice reform advocacy groups, including Worth Rises, a New York-based nonprofit that has helped make phone calls free to prisons in the New York City.

“This historic legislation will change lives: it will keep food on the table for families in need, children in contact with their parents and our communities safer,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises.

The law Lamont signed on Wednesday makes appeals for juveniles and incarcerated adults free as of October 1, 2022. The law also states that the State Department of Correction cannot reduce the number of in-person visits to inmates. because calls are now free.

The budget executive that was passed on Thursday will make calls free from July 1, 2022 and demand that every inmate be given 90 minutes of phone calls per day if they so choose.

Senator Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said the facility’s phones should be used from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. if each inmate was allowed to use their 90 minutes per day.

He said his calculations showed it would cost around $ 50 million to provide free phone calls and you would need six phones for every 100 inmates.

Elliott has introduced similar bills in recent years, but none have been voted on in the House or Senate, in part because of the cost of funding appeals and replacing the committee. by 68%.

The state received about $ 7 million from the commission that went to the judicial branch to fund probation officers and the criminal justice information system. DOC received $ 350,000 per year from the appeals commission.

Under a contract with the state administrative services department, the prison’s phone provider, Securus Technologies, pulls around $ 13 million per year for phone calls to and from prisons and keeps around $ 6 million. dollars per year. DAS will now have to renegotiate the contract to include the actual cost of providing telephone service to prisons.

The cost of free calls is expected to be between $ 3.5 million and $ 4.5 million per year, according to the Office of Tax Analysis.

While Lamont offered to cut the cost of calls by pennies in July, the Appropriations Committee opted to use $ 11.4 million in savings from the jail closures to make calls free.

The passage of the law came just as families faced a marginal increase in prison appeal costs due to a decision by the Federal Communications Commission.

“We have made it possible for families to talk to loved ones inside and those behind bars to have essential communications to know who they will be when they are released from prison,” said Senator Gary Winfield, D- New Haven, co-chair of the Judicial Commission. “These people are going to be our neighbors when they get home, but they are left alone inside our prisons. If we can fix this problem and we don’t, we would be irresponsible. But above all, sometimes it helps to do something that isn’t just about money. And this is one of those problems.

About Alma Ackerman

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