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Maine Caps Price of Phone Calls in State Prisons and Jails

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On April 15, 2022, Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) approved H.P. 853, a new law capping the cost of calls in state prisons and county jails. Effective October 1, 2022, calls may not exceed the federal rate of twelve cents per minute in prisons and twenty-one cents per minute in jails.

Though it won’t directly lower call costs for state prisoners — the state Department of Corrections (DOC) already caps their per-minute rate at nine cents — the new law provides them with 30 free weekly minutes for attorney calls and 30 more minutes for other calls, anytime their account balance falls below ten dollars.

Randall Liberty, DOC’s ironically named commissioner, said that for prisoners, contact with families is “critically important to a successful journey through incarceration with us.”

Maine Recovery Advocacy Project director Courtney Allen, whose work with those struggling with addiction means she knows as well as anyone what sort of “journey” prisoners are on, nevertheless agreed that facilitating communication with friends and family is “more important than anything that you can do for people who are inside.”

But Liberty also fretted that the price cap could affect “programming” like weightlifting and television for the state’s 1,750 prisoners, since those “privileges” are paid for by a portion of call costs kicked back to DOC — meaning “any increase in cost is important to fund,” he said. Under DOC’s current telephone service contract with Legacy Inmate Communications, the agency receives a kickback of five cents per call minute, which goes into an “Inmate Benefit Fund” (IBA). That may not be tapped to pay facility salaries or other operating expenses, but rather to provide prisoners things like haircuts or a GED teacher.

While those are things prisoners need, “[t]he state should not profit off their incarceration,” chided Meagan Sway, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. But she added that the law is a “good start,” especially for those in county jails, most of whom are pretrial detainees not yet convicted of a crime. They are excluded from the new law’s free minutes, however.

Holding a total of about 1,070 people, the jails are run by members of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association (MSA), which withheld support of the new bill until provisions were stripped offering free calls in jails and limiting their kickbacks.

Like DOC, which had $1.3 million in its IBA, Maine jails held a large IBA balance as of March 31, 2022 — a collective $2 million. But until future kickbacks were spared and MSA signed on, the bill was not going to pass, insisted state Rep. Richard Pickett (R-Dixfield).

“I guarantee you there will be a bill about this next session,” countered Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), who added: “There’s more to do.” 

Additional sources: Maine Public Radio, Penobscot Bay Pilot

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