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State must stop profiteering off prison phone calls: Op-Ed

Connecticut faces a moment of tremendous potential: The opportunity to lead the nation in reforms that will benefit communities directly impacted by our nation’s love affair with incarceration.

Our legislature is currently considering a bill (HB 6714) that encourages communication between incarcerated people in Connecticut and their families and support networks. Connecticut will be the first state to tackle the considerable financial burden placed on communities — disproportionately communities of color and poverty — fighting to maintain relationships with loved ones locked up inside prisons and jails.

While Connecticut touts its overall progressive policies, we currently rank 49th in the country (second only to Arkansas) in affordability for a phone call from prison. A 15-minute call can runs nearly $5, not including the fees imposed for depositing money into prepaid accounts.

In fiscal year 2018, Connecticut residents paid $13.3 million (excluding deposit fees and taxes) for phone calls with their incarcerated loved ones. Securus, a powerful prison telecommunications corporation, recorded roughly $5.6 million of that as revenue and the state received $7.7 million in kickbacks on the exclusive contract. That’s right: We make money gouging the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

This legislative session we were visited by criminal justice advocates who shared their stories.

A formerly incarcerated Connecticut resident reflected on the monetary and psychological costs of phone calls inside: “When I was incarcerated, regular communication with my loved ones was essential for me to maintain my physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health. All of those things suffered because I couldn’t manage to communicate with them … you worry that you’re being a burden. They’re out there trying to take care of their bills, and you become another bill by trying to keep in contact with them.”

Making communication more accessible is not just the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do. Research has demonstrated the importance of communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones. Communication increases safety and hope within prisons and jails, and it decreases recidivism and improves re-entry outcomes upon release. In making calls free, we would not only keep Connecticut families together, but we would also lower incarceration rates (along with its costs) and improve public safety. It’s difficult to argue against such benefits.

Some lawmakers have voiced objections to the loss of revenue and the additional budget for these calls. Not only would the proposal save Connecticut money in the long run, but exploitation of vulnerable communities is certainly not the answer. Core state functions should be funded out our core state budget, not by those who can least afford it — it is neither ethical nor sustainable.

As a state, it is our moral obligation to find a way to step up and model what fairness and equity look like for the rest of the country.

Rep. Josh Elliott (D-Hamden), Rep. Joshua Hall (Hartford), Rep. Anne Hughes (D-Easton, Redding, Weston), Rep. Hilda Santiago (D-Meriden), Rep. Michael Winkler (D-Vernon), Rep. David Michel (D-Stamford)


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