Chiding the high cost of Connecticut’s prison phone network, lawmakers on Tuesday backed a measure that would allow inmates to make or receive free calls.

Members of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee denounced the state’s method of profiting off prison phone calls. Officials have said Connecticut hauled in $7.7 million from the calls last fiscal year. That cost is borne by the inmates’ family members, several of whom packed a public hearing last month to plead for the bill’s passage.

The legislation approved Tuesday says the corrections commissioner shall provide telephone service for free and may provide supplementary telecommunications services, including video and electronic mail.

“As a mother, if my child was in the system, I would want my child to call. But maybe I’m a single mom and I only have one job and I can’t afford those telephone calls. Those calls are astronomical.”

Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford

“It was fairly shocking and disturbing to many members of this committee to find that our state is at or near the top in the cost of telecom services,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, a co-chair of the committee. “Our state is an extreme outlier in the amount it charges and correspondingly, in the amount it collects from inmates in our correctional facilities who are trying to call home.”

At the public hearing in March, Brittany Kane, a program coordinator for the CT Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative, told lawmakers that a 15-minute call within the state’s prisons costs about $4.

Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a national criminal justice advocacy group, said Connecticut ranks 49th, in front of only Arkansas, in the soaring cost of phone calls.

Since 2012, the state has contracted with Securus Technologies, a national prison telecommunications corporation, which Tylek said “capitalizes off the need for human connection and, understanding the vulnerability of the people subjected to its services, charges exorbitant rates for loved ones to stay in contact.”

Legislators fixated on that point Tuesday, with some saying they would support the bill despite their reservations.

“As a mother, if my child was in the system, I would want my child to call. But maybe I’m a single mom and I only have one job and I can’t afford those telephone calls,” Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, said. “Those calls are astronomical.”

Republicans on the panel recommended that a closer look be taken at the financial impact to agencies relying on the funding.

“I could envision a worst-case scenario that if we somehow unilaterally terminate this contract, they could say, ‘All right, we’re just going to pull all our telephones from all the correctional facilities.’  We could end up looking at months without inmates having any telecommunications services.”

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield

In written testimony, the state’s Judicial branch said it received more than $5.5 million from the calls last year. The money helps pay for staff and other expenses related to the Probation Transition Program, as well as for a unit that provides enhanced supervision of people who violate their probation.

“We do not have the necessary funding in our budget to make up for this loss of revenue,” officials with the Judicial branch wrote to legislators.

Some committee members suggested reducing, but not eliminating, the cost of prison calls. Others proposed free calls on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

“I have concerns in going from where we are to absolutely no charge whatsoever because I think that’s just too far of a swing,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said. “Perhaps we could get more into the middle of the pack regarding where Connecticut is vis-a-vis other states.”

Kissel asked his colleagues to explore the ramifications of abruptly ending the telecommunications contract.

“I could envision a worst-case scenario that if we somehow unilaterally terminate this contract, they could say, ‘All right, we’re just going to pull all our telephones from all the correctional facilities,’” he said. “We could end up looking at months without inmates having any telecommunications services.”

The bill now heads to the Appropriations Committee for review.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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