Connecticut made history on June 16, 2020, when Governor Lamont signed Senate Bill 972, making the state the first in the country where prison phone calls will be free for all prisoners and their families, including incarcerated youth. The state Senate and House fully funded the bipartisan bill, allocating $11.2 million in the budget. Other jurisdictions like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego have made jail phone calls free, but no state had taken the same step across its prison population until Connecticut passed this bill into law.
The change comes after years of organizing and lobbying by advocates for prisoners and families, including the Connecting Families Connecticut coalition. Worth Rises, a New York nonprofit, helped to lead the fight, and its Executive Director Bianca Tylek said the bill will save prisoners and their families in the state $14 million dollars a year. It will also help connect struggling families trying to stay in touch and assist in reentry by improving access to support networks, she said.
“Today, Connecticut made history by becoming the first state to make prison calls, and all other communications, free. All of the brave advocates and directly impacted families who fought for this should be proud of today’s victory,” Tylek said. “Connecticut has gone from last to first in the affordability of prison calls, and it was about time. This historic legislation will change lives: It will keep food on the table for struggling families, children in contact with their parents, and our communities safer,” she also said.
The bill makes all communications in state prisons and youth detention facilities free to the users, including emails and video calls or visits. It specifies that the services “shall be free of charge to the person initiating or receiving the communication.” It also directs that the state “shall not receive revenue for the provision of any communication service to any person...confined in a correctional facility,” a provisions which may end the practice there of kickbacks—also known as commissions—prisons often receive from telecom providers like Securus and Global Tel*Link.
SB 972 also protects in-person visits from being supplanted by video visits and guarantees prisoners at least 90 minutes of phone time per day. The bill as signed has an effective date of October, 2022, but the legislature is moving that up to July, 2022 through budget implementation procedures.
Worth Rises noted that while the Connecticut win is the most significant on prison phone rates, it’s the third so far this year, including jails. Upcoming prison phone campaigns in Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Miami, and other jurisdictions may also be bolstered by the victory in Connecticut.
The bill’s House sponsor, State Representative Josh Elliott, said: “It is a privilege to have been part of such an important fight. Connecticut has now set an example for the rest of the country, and we’re on the right side of history. Corporations can no longer be allowed to exploit the love between incarcerated people and their families—not in our state, not on our watch.”
The Senate proponent of the legislation, State Senator Gary Winfield, said: “We have made it possible for families to talk to their loved ones inside and for those behind bars to be able to have communications that are critical to who they will be when they come out of prison. These people are going to be our neighbors when they come home, but they’re left inside of our prisons on their own. If we can address this and we don’t, we’d be irresponsible. But above all, sometimes there’s value in doing something that’s not just about the dollars. And this is one of those issues.”
The bill to make calls free was introduced in the State Legislature in 2019, and passed out of both Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, but it was tabled that year when lawmakers failed to fund it. The bill was introduced again in 2020, but the legislative session was suspended due to COVID before it got a hearing.
After being reintroduced in 2021, a 12-hour public hearing was held, during which formerly and currently incarcerated advocates and their families testified in support of SB 972. The bill was passed out the Judiciary Committee, and then the Appropriations Committee allocated $11.4 million, and passed it as well. It was passed out of the full Senate in a 29-6 vote, and then went through the House in a 94-51 vote.
Several reform advocates and prominent state legislators noted the importance of the bill and its potential impact. “Thank you for having the courage to invest in people over profit,” said Karimah Mickens Webber, Chairperson of Ella’s Fund PAC. “This legislation underscores our commitment to successful reentry and reducing recidivism by removing the financial barrier of connecting incarcerated people to their families,” she said.
The Speaker of the House in Connecticut, Matt Ritter, said: “Expensive prison phone calls isolate incarcerated people from their families and support structures. I’m glad to support the passage of this bill and help fulfill our promise to Connecticut families and their incarcerated loved ones.”
Steve Safstrom, Co-Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, described the stakes in more personal terms. “It’s heartbreaking to think that a father can’t say goodnight to his child because they can’t afford it,” he said. “I’m proud that Connecticut has voted to end this today.”
Hopefully this will be part of the eventual demise of the business model that sees prisoners and their families as profit centers to be ruthlessly exploited and that recognizes the right to communication as the fundamental human right that it is.
Sources: worthrises.org, State of Connecticut Senate Bill No. 972 (Public Act No. 21-54)
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