IF PEER PRESSURE is a thing among state legislatures, Massachusetts may soon be feeling some heat from its next-door neighbor.
Yesterday, Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation making Connecticut the first state in the country to make phone calls free for incarcerated people and their loved ones.
While internet technology has made it possible to chat up someone on the other side of the world at no cost, the business of connecting inmates with a family member who may be sitting in their home a stone’s throw away remains big business. Correctional facilities contract with private companies that end up charging extraordinary rates to manage prison phone systems. In Connecticut, prior to the new law, a 15-minute call could cost $5, one of the highest prison telephone call rates of any state.
Not only do the charges weigh down inmates and families who are often at the bottom of the economic ladder, advocates say they inhibit the type of regular contact with family that can help ground inmates and work to lower their recidivism risk after being released.
“This historic legislation will change lives: It will keep food on the table for struggling families, children in contact with their parents, and our communities safer,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Worth Rises, said in a statement following yesterday’s bill-signing in Connecticut.
In a report earlier this month on the state’s move to remove charges from prison phone calls, John Hart of the Vera Institute of Justice told NPR that research has found that “there is a correlation with lower drug use, there is a greater likelihood of finding jobs, there’s less run-ins with the laws when people are maintaining these relationships.”
It’s not just the companies that profit off the system. State and local correctional agencies make money off prison calls as well. Connecticut was reaping a 68 percent commission on prison calls there.
A similar push to end charges for prison calls has been underway in Massachusetts, but so far has stalled in the Legislature.
Last session, Sen. Will Brownsberger sponsored a bill to eliminate charges to all Massachusetts inmates for telephone calls. It cleared the Public Safety committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee but then died in the Rules Committee as the session ended. This session, a bill was filed by Sen. Cynthia Creem to do the same. It’s awaiting a hearing from the Public Safety committee. A similar House bill, filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler of Roxbury, has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.
One barrier to ending the charges is that corrections officials use the commissions they get to pay for inmate programs and other parts of their operations. CommonWealth reported last year that the state’s county correctional facilities alone took in $11 million from inmate phone calls in 2019.
The state would presumably have to make up for that lost funding if call charges were eliminated, but Brownsberger told CommonWealth last year that lawmakers would fold that into the broader consideration of corrections spending. “It’s part of a larger budget conversation about the cost of corrections,” he said.