The vote for the prison phone bill.
A billboard on I-91 in West Haven over the summer calling on Gov. Ned Lamont to make phone calls free at correctional facilities across the state. Kelan Lyons / CTMNirror

The state Senate voted on Thursday to make it free for incarcerated people to call their loved ones from prison or jail.

Sen. Martin Looney, President Pro Tem of the Senate and a New Haven Democrat, called the bill a “good investment of therapeutic policy” that would help reduce the feelings of alienation, detachment and isolation that so many people feel once they are released from incarceration.

“I support this bill as a good investment in our campaign against prisoner recidivism,” Looney said.

The bill would allow people incarcerated in state correctional facilities to use the phones for free. Currently, making a phone call from jail or prison is a costly service, potentially made even less affordable during COVID-19.

If the bill passes the House, Connecticut could become the first state in the country to make all prison phone calls free.

Legislators first raised concerns about the cost of prison phone calls 20 years ago, Looney said. But Thursday was the first time lawmakers passed the bill out of one of the legislative chambers.

The bill passed 29-6.

“After years of work, we have finally passed the bill to provide free communications for the families of incarcerated people,” Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, a proponent who has been pushing to make the calls free for the past three legislative sessions, said in a text message. “There’s still an uphill battle to ensure that we hear the bill in the House, but the bipartisan vote in the Senate is a reminder that the CT legislature cares about rehabilitating people and providing a framework to be successful upon reentry.”

The vote for the prison phone bill.

The state announced a four-cent reduction in the cost of the calls effective July 1, but advocates contend that modest reduction only takes Connecticut from 50th to 45th in the nation for affordability of prison phone calls.

The money generated from the phone calls goes to a private company, Securus Technologies, which collects and passes funds through to the state, paying for state supervision overseen by the Judicial Branch, the Criminal Justice Information System and for Department of Correction programming.

The bill’s fiscal note estimated it would cost the DOC up to approximately $4.5 million in Fiscal Year 2023 if the calls were free.

Before the bill passed out of the Appropriations Committee earlier this month, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague and the committee’s co-chair, said the money from the phone calls that would have gone to the Judicial Branch and the state’s Criminal Justice Information System will be paid for with the funds saved by closing Northern Correctional Institution.

Cost was a major concern of several of the Republicans who voted against the bill.

Sen. John Kissel of Enfield introduced an amendment that would have eliminated the cost to the DOC. Kissel said the amendment would reduce the cost of the phone calls but not make them free. Instead, the incarcerated would pay the “fair market value” of the cost of using the phone in a correctional center.

“When these inmates are eventually released … things cost money,” Kissel said. “I think it’s extremely important that while we have it within our desires to change the current system for folks that are incarcerated, that it’s very important that the inmates realize that the services that are provided have a value, and they have a dollar value.”

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon and a retired police officer, said the measure asks the taxpayer to foot the bill, when they already pay for the salaries of police, the cost of court and for a person’s time in prison or jail.

“If the person arrested wants to avoid all this, don’t commit the crime,” Champagne said, calling the underlying bill “a freebie for prisoners, at taxpayers’ expense.”

The amendment failed.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, reminded his colleagues that the vast majority of people in prison eventually are released. By keeping the phone calls costly, Winfield said, lawmakers are keeping these people shut off from the outside world, forced to weather the stressors of incarceration alone.

“I think sometimes there’s value in doing a thing that’s not just about the dollars, and this is one of those issues,” said Winfield.

Considering the racial disparities in the incarcerated population, the measure will disproportionately benefit Black and brown residents. Looney noted that the majority of prisoners are from cities like Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Britain, Norwalk, Stamford and Danbury, a considerable distance from northeast Connecticut, where many of the state’s prisons are located.

“Many of those families are very poor. Many of them are not able to travel to visit their incarcerated relatives because they are so far away on other ends of the state,” Looney said. “So the only lifeline, the only way to possibly keep in contact is to have as frequent phone conversations and phone contacts as they possibly can.”

The bill also protects in-person visitation, prohibiting the DOC from supplanting contact visits with phone calls since those services would now be free.

“You cannot say, ‘Since we have that, then you don’t get this,’” said Winfield.

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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