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Connecticut Legislators Push For Free Prison Phone Calls

Connecticut legislators are hoping to pass a bill that would make phone calls from prisons in the state free. Currently the high cost of communication between prisoners and their families has negative consequences.

At nearly $5 for 15 minutes, the maximum time allowed per call, the state charges the second highest rates in the nation for in-prison phone calls. It can add up quickly for families who are often the ones footing the bill through a prepaid account.

Brittany Kane, program coordinator for the Connecticut Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative, said the fees can be devastating for low-income families trying to maintain relationships with loved ones who are incarcerated.

“We don’t have bus lines to these prison facilities,” Kane said. “We don’t have transportation vouchers for families who don’t have a car or can’t afford gas money. So these calls mean the world.”

And for kids with incarcerated parents, contact can have a significant impact.

“For a child to talk to their parent and say, ‘hey, I got an A on my test. Hey, I won my basketball game.’ These are the things that these children want to talk to their parents about,” said Kane. “It’s for the kids to feel, ‘you love me and I’m here for you, and you’re going to be here for me, whether from afar or in my house.’”

A bill introduced earlier this year by State Rep. Josh Elliott would make prison calls free. The measure has garnered support on both sides of the aisle, but the biggest hurdle is the cost.

“It’s about $7 million that we estimate will be a loss to the state,” said Elliott, explaining that a private company, Securus, is currently under contract with the Department of Corrections. “They come in and administer the phone system. They take a certain amount of profit and they kick back a certain amount to the DOC.”

In all, families paid $15 million to receive phone calls from their loved ones behind bars last year. Of that, $7 million dollars went directly to the state. The judicial branch said the revenue is used for criminal justice programs, probation officer positions, and other related expenses. And the loss of funds concerns lawmakers like Republican Rep. Craig Fishbein. He did not support the bill -- but he said he has mixed feelings.

“Somebody has to pay for this service to be rendered,” Fishbein said. “On the other hand, if people only knew that the state of Connecticut is profiting from communications between family members and those that are incarcerated — I think that is absolutely horrible.”

But advocates say that if inmates don’t have an emotional support system, that ends up costing the state more money in the long run. Brittany Kane said studies show that maintaining ties with loved ones can improve re-entry back into the community after incarceration and helps lower recidivism. But it’s also not just about the inmate — she said the families are doing the time with them.

“If we’re spending about $58,000 a year per incarcerated person, why don’t we make it fruitful for all of us?” Kane said. “We know they’re returning to society so let’s do what we can to rehabilitate and not be punitive and so let’s foster these relationships.”

Marlene Torres is from Hartford. Her older brother was incarcerated when she was a child. She said she was only able to talk to him for about two minutes — maybe once a week, because her family couldn’t afford the phone calls. She’s now 28, and still recalls the painful feeling of abandonment by the brother she looked up to.

“I think I hated him for a while,” Torres said. “But it was more abandonment. My dad was there, but that was my brother. I mean, we never talk about it. I think that’s what it is. I wish if — if it was different, like I could have talked to my brother everyday, I think it would have been changed a lot.”

The prison phone call measure was not included as part of the $43.3 billion biennial spending plan recommended by the Appropriations Committee earlier this week. But advocates are holding out hope since the session doesn’t end until June.

And even if it doesn’t make it over the finish line this time around, Rep. Josh Elliott said he still sees it as a win.

“Before January of this year this wasn’t even a conversation in Connecticut,” Elliott said. “Even if it doesn’t become law this year, we still have gotten very far with what is essentially a new idea and a paradigmatic shift in the way that we administer telephone calls.”

New York City passed a law last year making it the first city to eliminate telephone charges for incarcerated people. It goes into effect this month. Connecticut is a state lauded for its forward-thinking policies in criminal justice. If the measure passes here, it would become the first state in the nation to make prison calls free.

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