For people with relatives in prison, coronavirus makes calls more urgent – and harder to afford
Connecticut ranks among the most expensive states in the country for the cost of calls dialed from within its prison walls – and COVID-19 has both made these connections more of a lifeline and, for those outside with lost jobs or income, a bigger hit to the wallet.
“We’re concerned about not having enough money,” said Elain Daly, who prioritizes keeping her six-year-old daughter in touch with her incarcerated father. They used to talk every day, but that’s no longer possible. Daly hasn’t lost her job as a social worker, but she’s had to pay for extra child care, since COVID-19 closed the schools.
“We have other bills we have to pay,” said Daly, who, like many interviewed for this article, asked that the father’s name be withheld so he isn’t punished by prison officials.
Her daughter worries constantly about her dad, who is being held about 100 miles from their home in New York City, at Cheshire Correctional Institution. She isn’t sleeping well, and needs all the lights on to feel safe, Daly said.
“When she doesn’t speak to him, she gets anxious,” she added. “She has complete meltdowns.”
The pandemic has created something of a paradox, said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a New York City-based organization that advocates for those exploited by the prison system. “Communication is more necessary at a time when it’s even less affordable,” she said.
Communication is more necessary at a time when it’s even less affordable.”
Tylek’s organization and others in the prison phone justice coalition recently posted a billboard on I-95 in West Haven calling on Gov. Ned Lamont to stop charging families for phone calls from state correctional facilities. Part of the reason they put the message there, Tylek said, is because they thought the governor would pass it on his way to the Capitol from his home in Greenwich.
“We wanted to make a clear statement this is not going away,” she said. “As COVID-19 takes over and prisons and jails become the epicenters of the outbreak, families are desperate to get in touch.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that correctional facilities consider reducing or temporarily eliminating the cost of prison phone calls for the pandemic’s duration to encourage “non-contact visits.” The state’s Department of Correction has followed related CDC guidance by suspending visitation programs and providing free video visitation for the roughly 50 children incarcerated in state prisons.
State lawmakers have tried to pass bills in each of the last two legislative sessions that would make prison and jail phone calls free. Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who first introduced the measure in 2019, said state officials pledged that year to renegotiate the contract with Securus Technologies, a national prison telecommunications corporation, to lower the lower the financial burden on incarcerated people and their families. That bill died on the last day of the legislative session.
According to a CT News Junkie story on the 2019 bill, the state has made about $7.7 million annually from the calls. Securus brings in around $5.5 million each year for the service. It’s unclear what it would cost to immediately make the calls free, since there are roughly 2,500 fewer people incarcerated now than in June 2019, when that bill died. A previous fiscal analysis said the cost to the state would fluctuate with call volume.
At the beginning of the 2020 pandemic-shortened legislative session, Gov. Ned Lamont proposed using the state’s general fund to offset some of the phone cost burden. He also directed the state to renegotiate its contract with Securus.
COVID-19 ended any legislative efforts to make prison phone calls free or cheaper, or to continue any contract discussions. A representative from Securus said the company has provided Connecticut inmates with about 220,000 free phone calls — two per incarcerated person, per week — since COVID-19 began. The free weekly calls will be available until June 6, after which they will reassess and potentially extend them.
“We are committed to working with Connecticut DOC and all existing customers to evaluate current offerings, as well as funding models, to ensure we work together to keep incarcerated individuals connected with their loved ones, as long as we can do so without compromising public safety,” a Securus representative wrote in an email.
The company has also provided 1,096 pre-paid calling cards to the Department of Correction to distribute to those who don’t have access to funds. Each card is loaded with about $4 worth of calling time.
A call can cost almost $5 for a 15-minute conversation.
I have foregone other bills just to get some money on the account just so I can talk to him.”
“The fact that [the Department of Administrative Services] is not renegotiating is an absolute abdication of responsibility,” Elliott said. “There’s no doubt there is a lot on their plate right now. All I would then ask is: Why did you not do this when you had the chance?”
Now people like Dayna Deyulio, whose husband is incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, have to make tough decisions. Do they pay for their utilities, or do they put money in their Securus accounts so they can talk to their relatives?
“I have foregone other bills just to get some money on the account just so I can talk to him,” said Deyulio, who lives in Norwalk. “There are people that can’t even speak to their loved ones because they don’t have the money.”
More than a phone call
Phone lines aren’t just a way for families to stay connected; they’re also a way to transmit updates about what’s going on inside correctional facilities as the virus spreads.
“We should be able to get information on what’s happening, both from the department and from those inside,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “As we all know, perspective is different depending on what side of the issue you sit on.”
Bridgeport resident Mona Lee has her 25-year-old son read her bible verses when he calls her from Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution. They used to talk twice a week before COVID-19, but now he calls her every other day.
That’s not because she’s flush with cash; Lee estimates she’s lost about a third of her income since the pandemic began. She’s a nursing assistant who helps the elderly shower, wash their clothes and restock their grocery cabinets. Her hours have been cut because some of the people she helps are so scared of the virus they won’t let her in their house.
She has borrowed money from other family members so she can talk to her son. She wants to hear from him as much as she can, so he can tell her what it’s like inside.
“I’m very nervous and scared,” Lee said. “I need to make sure he’s OK.”
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