Inmates serving time in Connecticut could soon be off the hook for expensive phone bills.
Legislation approved Tuesday by lawmakers in Connecticut has been passed along to the General Assembly and, if approved, would make that state the first in the country to allow inmates to make free phone calls.
Currently, people must pay $3.85 for a 15 minute phone call with an inmate in Connecticut, the second-highest rate in the nation after Arkansas, which charges $4.80 for a 15-minute phone call.
Currently, family and friends must pay $3.85 for a 15 minute phone call with an inmate in that state, the second-highest rate in the nation after Arkansas, which charges $4.80 to make a prepaid 15-minute call from a state prison.
Inmates in Connecticut made $13.2 million worth of calls. Of that, the state took $7.7 million in revenue, the Associated Press reported.
In May, New York City implemented a new law, sponsored by Speaker Corey Johnson, earlier this month giving Rikers Island prisoners free phone calls. The city — and private contractor, Securus Technologies — charged inmates 50 cents to use the phone previously, and an additional 5 cents for each minute on the phone.
Individuals incarcerated in New York City — where about three in four held in city jails are pre-trial detainees — can now make 21 minutes of domestic calls every three hours. The total annual bill for those calls: $8 million a year, with $5 million of that going to the city.
However, no call can last more than 15 minutes, and inmates in punitive segregation may only make one 15-minute call per day. Earlier this month, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about the need to create more “humane jails.”
“With free phone calls, we’re eliminating one of those barriers and ensuring that people in custody have the opportunity to remain connected with their lawyers, families and support networks that are so crucial to re-entry into one’s community,” he said.
Those held in local jails are paying much more. People incarcerated in some local Arkansas facilities could pay as much as $24.82 just to make a 15-minute phone call, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative released in February.
The average cost of an in-state 15-minute call from a jail totaled $14.49 in Arkansas, $12.03 in Michigan, $9.24 in Montana and $8.49 in Kansas in 2018. (In-state calls account for about nine in 10 domestic calls, the PPI estimates.)
The national average for a call of that length is $5.61.
‘High phone rates impact everyone in jail, but those worst affected are people detained pretrial because they cannot afford bail.’
These exorbitant rates and accompanying fees can prove “disastrous” for people in city and county jails, co-authors Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones argue. It jeopardizes their employment, custody arrangements and housing as they await trial, they said. Around 65% of inmates in local jails haven’t been convicted on a charge, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
What’s more, forcing pre-trial defendants to pay steep rates to phone their lawyers and family members “punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel, and makes it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help them post bail or build their defense,” they write.
“High phone rates impact everyone in jail, but those worst affected are people detained pretrial because they cannot afford bail,” Jones said. “When someone has to organize their defense from jail, the cost of phone calls becomes extremely limiting, and that ultimately makes our justice system less fair.”
The American Correctional Association did not immediately respond to a MarketWatch request for comment on the report. Some progress has been made to help inmates make affordable phone calls: The Federal Communications Commission has also capped costs for out-of-state calls from jails and prisons.
These eye-popping figures at the local level come despite progress in the country’s state prisons, the report said: The cost of a 15-minute in-state call from an Illinois state-run facility plummeted 98% from $6.14 to 14 cents between 2008 and 2019; state rates in Maryland and New Hampshire dropped by a respective 93% and 92% over the same period.
The average rate from a local Illinois jail, meanwhile, is 52 times more costly than its state prison rate. But the size of a facility doesn’t necessarily correlate to phone rates, per an analysis by PPI.
Instead, jails fall prey to entering high-rate contracts with phone providers, which have “learned how to take advantage of the inherent weaknesses in how local jails, as opposed to state prisons, approach contracting.” Providers also sneak in additional consumer fees for call-related “services.”