AP NEWS

Lawmakers make final push for free prison phone calls

May 28, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Legislation that would make Connecticut the first state in the nation to allow phone calls from prison to be free for the families of inmates has passed a key legislative hurdle.

The legislation was approved Tuesday by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and heads to the House.

Currently, inmates or their families pay just under $5 for phone calls of up to 15 minutes, the second-highest rate in the nation behind Arkansas.

Opponents of the legislation have said the cost involves monitoring phone conversations and should be borne by the criminals.

But state Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat from New Haven, said it’s actually the families who pay for the phone calls, not the inmates. She said making those calls free would encourage family communication and help inmates reintegrate into society once they have served their sentence.

“They are doing their time, but it doesn’t mean we have to strip them of their dignity,” she said.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s office has expressed concern over how Connecticut would make up the lost revenue.

“This is something that in concept Governor Lamont absolutely supports,” said Maribel La Luz, his spokeswoman. “Contact with families and their communities is crucial for people in prison. With less than two weeks remaining until the end of the legislative session, offsetting the $13 million estimated cost is an incredible challenge.”

In the 2018 fiscal year, Connecticut inmates made $13.2 million in calls. The state took in $7.7 million in revenue from the phone calls, which was used for probation and re-entry programs.

Last week, Securus, the vendor that supplies the phone service, withdrew its opposition to the bill and said it would be willing to renegotiate its contract.

But state Rep. Josh Elliott, a Hamden Democrat who introduced the legislation, said just making the calls cheaper is not good enough.

He said an amendment may be added to the bill that would push the timetable for implementing the free calls back two years, to allow time to deal with the fiscal implications.

“But, these calls absolutely must be free,” he said.

If Connecticut were to adopt the policy, the state would be following the lead of New York City, which began allowing free phone calls earlier this month. The day the policy took effect, prisoners’ call volume increased by 38%, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of national prisoner advocacy group Worth Rises.

She said many of those impacted by the bill will be poor women of color, whose partners are behind bars. They should not be punished for something they did not do, she said.

“This is a racial justice issue; this is an economic justice issue; this is not just a criminal justice issue.”

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