After Diane Lewis’ son went to prison at the age of 17, she said, the cost of prison phone calls started to overshadow everything else.
“It wasn’t long before the utilities were being cut off, the gas was being cut off, I was late on the rent,” said Lewis, who is also the communications’ director at the Voices of Women of Color, a for-profit political advocacy firm in Hartford. In a public hearing on Monday, Lewis said that she even skipped meals so that she could talk to her son.
Lewis was one of several individuals who submitted testimony on a bill that, if passed, would make prison phone calls free of charge.
A 15-minute phone call in a Connecticut state prison in 2019 cost $3.65, the second highest rate in the country after Arkansas, according to the non-profit research and advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.
Prison phone calls in Connecticut brought in a total of $12 million in 2019, according to Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, the non-profit advocacy organization that authored the legislation. $7 million of that went to the state, while the remaining $5 million went to Texas-based Securus Technologies, a prison communications company owned by a California-based private equity firm, Platinum Equity, that contracts with the state. The Office of Policy Management confirmed these figures for this story.
Data from the Department of Correction shows that there were 12,530 prisoners in Connecticut in December of 2019. As of March 1, 2021, there are 9,050.
Tylek told CT Examiner that her organization has successfully passed legislation on a county level in New York City, San Francisco and San Diego eliminating fees for inmate phone calls.
The effects on youth and parents
According to Adam Yagaloff, a staff attorney for the Center for Children’s Advocacy, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in children’s legal issues, the inability to make phone calls disproportionately affects youth, and can make it difficult for young people to plan for reentry into society.
“As a result, their first days and weeks of reentry are often chaotic, leading to unnecessary stress, panic, and idle time,” Yagaloff testified. “This in turn leads to increased criminal thinking and increased recidivism.”
Venezia Michalsen, an associate professor of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, read testimony by a prisoner named “Dope,” whose testimony was recorded by the nonprofit Connecticut Bail Fund, a nonprofit that says it’s dedicated to reducing the direct harms caused by criminalization, incarceration, and deportation
Michalsen said that “Dope,” who has been held in the Carl Robinson Correctional Facility in Enfield for four years, has four children, two of whom are autistic.
“They make it work, but he said it’s really, really hard,” said Michalsen. “Autistic children need routine, and so if he doesn’t call, his child really struggles.”
Michalsen said that Dope’s family pays $300 each month so that he can talk to his children on a regular basis. According to Michalsen, that amount is not always sufficient, and Dope explained to her that when there are not sufficient funds in his account, his brother will need to call and pretend to be Dope.
Jeannia Fu, a volunteer with the Connecticut Bail Fund, read the testimony of Matthew Abraham, who spent 20 years incarcerated at Chester Correctional Facility. In his testimony, Abraham talked about learning about the death of his grandmother over the phone. The conversation with his family, he said, was cut short when money ran out of his mother’s account. Ten days later, his mother died.
“A free phone call would have provided my family and I the opportunity to grieve together, if only for 15 miuntes when we lost our grandmother,” he said. “A free phone call could have provided me with one last phone conversation with my mother before she left her physical form.”
Filling a budget hole
Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros said that he was open to the idea of free phone calls, but that the loss of income could come at a cost to other programs.
Quiros said that the Department of Correction receives $350,000 from the calls, which is put toward inmate programming. An additional approximately $4.4 million is directed to the Judicial Branch, and $2.2 million is sent to the state’s Connecticut Criminal Justice Information System. A portion of this money is used to fund the salaries of 28 probation officers.
Gov. Ned Lamont allocated $1 million to the Judicial Branch in his 2022-23 draft budget to replace funds lost from inmate phone calls. However, in testimony on the bill, the Judicial Branch said that it would need an additional $2.2 million to continue funding the probation officers’ salaries.
According to Quiros, the Department of Administrative Services will renegotiate the contract with Securus in 2022. Quiros said that the state was able to lower the price of calls by 4 cents per minute in the last contract negotiations in 2020.
But Lewis said that simply reducing the price of calls wasn’t adequate.
“You’re asking low-income families to keep making sacrifices they can’t afford,” she said.