Bill That Would Make Prison Phone Calls Free Sent to the House

By Katheleen Megan, The CT Mirror

Advocates for a proposal that would allow inmates to make free telephone calls were heartened when the bill was endorsed Tuesday by the legislature’s Appropriation Committee and forwarded to the House of Representatives.

KATHLEEN MEGAN :: CT MIRROR  James Jeter, now a Trinity College student, said his mother and grandmothers paid thousands of dollars on phone calls to stay in touch with him when he was in prison for 19 years.

KATHLEEN MEGAN :: CT MIRROR

James Jeter, now a Trinity College student, said his mother and grandmothers paid thousands of dollars on phone calls to stay in touch with him when he was in prison for 19 years.

James Jeter, who was in prison for 19 years and is now a Trinity College student, called the vote “a Herculean lift that no one thought would happen, except those pushing it.”

“I just hope it doesn’t get stalled,” Jeter said. “It deserves a vote.”

At a news conference shortly before the committee vote — which was 29 to 19 — Jeter and other advocates spoke about the need for the bill and criticized the current system which they said is not only expensive but allows the state to profit from the calls.

Since 2012, the state has contracted with Securus Technologies, a national prison telecommunications corporation. Connecticut families pay between 21 and 32 cents a minute, or about $4.87, for a 15-minute phone call.

Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a New York-based national criminal justice advocacy group, said that Connecticut ranks 49th, in front of only Arkansas, in the high cost of prison phone calls.

“This is a racial justice issue, this is an economic justice issue. This is not just a criminal justice issue,” Tylek said at the news conference. “These are communities that are vulnerable in every which way. That $5 for a 15 minute phone call changes lives.”

It seems especially unfair to advocates that the state makes money off the phone calls, collecting a $7.7 million profit in 2018.

The bill passed by Appropriations says that phone calls will be provided free for inmates and allows the commissioner of corrections to supplement phone service with other telecommunication services including video communication and email. It also specifies that the Department of Correction will not receive revenue for the provision of phone service or any other telecommunications service.

The plan would be for the free communication services to take effect in 2021.

A fiscal note on the bill estimates that in Fiscal Year 2021, it would cost the DOC $5 to $6 million to offer free phone service and would result in a revenue loss to the state of $7.7 million.

Securus Technologies had opposed the bill, but in a letter dated May 22, Securus CEO Robert Pickens wrote to Rep. Josh Elliott, who sponsored the bill, that “in the interest of good faith discussions with state officials regarding these issues, we are formally withdrawing opposition to the legislation.”

“Further, we want to make clear that should the legislation pass we are committed to working with the state on executing a seamless and orderly transition including any necessary work with the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.”

Pickens also said that given the potential elimination of the commission to the state, “we are committed to downwardly adjusting call rates.”

Elliott, a Democrat from Hamden, said Tuesday afternoon that while the letter from Securus was good news, it arrived very late in the session.

He said he’s still going push to get the bill passed this session but with only a week left, he realizes it may not be possible.

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