Telephone calls were a lifeline for Hartford resident Diane Lewis when her son was incarcerated.
“I made these phone calls priority over everything, before any bill in this house,” she said.
But affording those calls was a struggle. Lewis and other Connecticut families have paid nearly $5 for a 15-minute phone call through a prepaid account -- among the highest rates in the nation.
“He didn’t know there were times when I talked to him with no lights on in the house, because the lights went off,” Lewis said. “He didn’t ever know that. So, I had to juggle back and forth every month.”
Now a bill that would make Connecticut the first state in the nation to provide free prison phone calls is headed to the governor’s desk. Legislators say the high cost of staying connected has taken a toll on inmates and their families. Advocates say the benefits of maintaining a bond go beyond prison bars.
Connecticut has been making a 68% commission on in-state prison calls for years through its contract with phone vendor Securus Technologies, one of the largest prison phone vendors in the country. In 2019, the state took in about $7 million.
“I think that now people agree that we should be fixing this problem,” said state Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden. Elliot, a Democrat, has been trying to make prison telephone calls free for two years. He feels the calls should be considered a rehabilitative resource for incarcerated people, since most of them will eventually return to society.
“And do we want them to be successful? Or are we just looking to punish people?” he said. “I would offer that we should be looking to rehabilitate people and provide them with as many resources as we possibly can to ensure their success.”
The revenue from the calls has been used for criminal justice programs, probation officer positions and other related expenses.
Legislators say those costs could be paid for with the money saved by closing Connecticut’s only supermax prison, Northern Correctional Institution, scheduled to shut down this summer. Two additional facilities are due to close in the future.
Though the bill had bipartisan support, some lawmakers didn’t agree with it.
“If the person arrested wants to avoid all this, don’t commit the crime,” said Republican state Sen. Dan Champagne, a former police officer.
“The hardworking, overtaxed, number one in the nation in many areas taxpayers of Connecticut are going to pay for the prisoners’ phone calls,” he said during a debate on the bill. “The taxpayers should not be saddled with this cost in addition to all the other costs that they have been saddled with because somebody decided to violate the law.”
Lawmakers may not agree on how or who should pay for the calls, but researchers say there are long-term benefits to staying connected that go beyond incarceration.
Dr. John Hart, a senior research associate with the Vera Institute of Justice, outlined some of those benefits.
“Vera has found there is a correlation with lower drug use. There’s a greater likelihood of finding jobs. There’s less run-ins with the law when people are maintaining these relationships,” he said.
Hart says the power of the human voice can carry people a long way.
Jewu Richardson from New Haven agrees. He says when he served time, the prohibitive cost of making a daily call to his kids became a weekly call and dwindled from there.
“I’m still suffering from the trauma of that now,” said Richardson. “A lot of this trauma is unspoken trauma. People don’t see it every day. And if you walk by me or walk by my kids, you won’t see this. But these are like monumental times that I wasn’t able to be there, at least through the phone.”
But the tide is turning. Bianca Tylek is executive director of Worth Rises, a New York-based criminal justice advocacy group that got free prison phone calls passed in New York City. She says Connecticut is paving the way for more states to adopt similar legislation.
“There are bills in Massachusetts and New York. There are campaigns burgeoning in states like Michigan that would like to see similar policies. And we expect that that will grow,” she said.
In addition to New York City, San Francisco and San Diego have already passed policies making phone calls free.
For Diane Lewis, it’s a win for all mothers who have incarcerated children.
“As a mother, you don’t ever stop loving. You don’t ever stop caring,” she said. “Your son could be in college and you miss your son because he’s halfway across the country going to school. I miss mine the same exact way when he’s in prison. I don’t care that he’s not getting a doctorate. That’s still my kid.”
If Gov. Ned Lamont signs the bill, prison phone calls are projected to be free in Connecticut by Oct. 1, 2022.