Connecticut holds the dismal distinction of being the state with the most expensive prison phone calls in the country. But a new bill in the state legislature may soon make Connecticut the first state to make prison phone calls free.
Senate Bill 520 would require Connecticut state prisons to offer telephone or other communication to incarcerated people free of charge, at a minimum of 90 minutes per day. The state could not collect any revenue from operating these services.
Connecticut contracts with telephone company Securus to offer phone calls to incarcerated people. The Yale Daily News reported that Connecticut residents paid a total of over $13 million to speak to their incarcerated family members in 2018—nearly $5 for a 15-minute phone call. Connecticut collected nearly $8 million from phone call charges, while Securus pocketed $5.6 million.
The financial burden of these calls—and the pain that comes with it—is not shared evenly. The high fees currently charged to incarcerated people and their families to communicate across bars especially harm the state’s Black, Brown and poor residents. A 2015 national survey analyzing the costs of incarceration found that women pay almost nine out of every 10 dollars spent to visit or call a loved one in prison. More than one-third of families surveyed went into debt just to keep in touch with their loved ones.
The families who struggled to keep in contact were more likely to experience poor health outcomes, like depression or stress. Black women are impacted the most—two out of five have a family member behind bars. And the more difficult it is for people to stay in contact with their families during incarceration, the more difficult it is for them to safely and successfully re-enter society when they are released.
Connecticut is not the first state in which advocates have pushed for this reform. In August 2018, New York City became the first US city to make phone calls free for people in its city-run jails. The city also contracted with Securus, and had been earning $5 million each year from phone charges to people in jail.
In August 2020, San Francisco became the first county to offer free phone calls from its jails. San Francisco contracts with another company, GTL, to provide phone services that cost incarcerated people and their families over $1 million in 2018. Under the reform, San Francisco now pays a set fee to GTL rather than users of the phone services.
The fight over prison and jail phone calls goes back decades. The Prison Policy Initiative traced the movement back to 2000, when Martha Wright sued a private prison company over its exorbitant phone charges to her incarcerated grandson. Despite these legal challenges, no reform came until 2013.
That year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates telephone and other communications, capped phone rates for interstate prison phone calls. They set the maximum charge at 21 cents per minute for debit and pre-paid calls, and 25 cents for collect calls (where the person receiving the phone call is charged).
It’s unclear to what extent the FCC has the authority to regulate in-state prison calls.
In 2015, the FCC tried to cap charges for in-state prison calls as well as regulate jail phone calls. The agency also wanted to cut down “ancillary fees” that may double the cost of calls. Phone companies, state prisons, jails and sheriffs alike all sued the FCC. After years of legal drama, federal courts struck down the caps on in-state calls—but left the restrictions on added fees.
It’s unclear to what extent the FCC has the authority to regulate in-state prison calls. According to the US Constitution, the federal government can regulate interstate commerce. But prisons, jails and sheriffs don’t give a damn about your interpretation of the Constitution.
The fight over prison phone calls has been waged out of greed. Over the last 30 years, prison and jail telecoms companies have rapidly consolidated under the two giants: Securus and GTL. Today, these two own 70 percent of the $1.2 billion prison phone business.
Because of their powerful market position, these two companies contract with penal facilities throughout the US and offer them a portion of revenues from phone calls. In other words, they bribe state and local governments. They can charge exorbitant fees and get away with it because they face no meaningful competition.
The state and local governments can’t complain; many now depend on the revenue from prison phone calls. In Connecticut, the state judiciary admitted in 2019 that if it lost this income stream, they would have to fire probation officers.
As the coronavirus pandemic has forced many aspects of daily life to go virtual, the issue of prison phone calls has only become more acute for incarcerated people and their loved ones.
In April 2020, the federal Bureau of Prisons made prison phone calls free for the duration of the pandemic, and increased the monthly call limit. That was after they suspended in-person visits at federal facilities. Of course, the federal prison and jail population is only a fraction of the total number of people behind bars in the US.
The FCC also proposed last year to reduce rates on interstate calls by up to 44 percent, and called on state governments to reduce their in-state rates. It is ironic that the call came from former FCC head Ajit Pai, who previously represented prison phone companies as a lawyer and spent his career in the agency trying to stifle reforms.
Democratic Representatives in the House introduced legislation last year to go further by giving the FCC full authority to regulate all prison phone calls in the US. It would also cap call charges at 4 cents a minute for debit and prepaid calls, or 5 cents for collect calls. The bill would ban the commissions to local governments.
The bill is aptly named after the recalcitrant grandmother who arguably started this movement: Martha Wright. Whether in Congress or in states like Connecticut, 2021 may be the year that reform on prison phone calls finally breaks through.
Photograph via Congressman Bobby Rush