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Minnesota Makes All Calls Free in Prisons and Jails

On May 19, 2023, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed into law SF 2909, the Judiciary and Public Safety budget bill. Introduced by two Democratic state lawmakers, Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten and Rep. Esther Agbaje, the measure made calls free in all state prisons. With it, Minnesota joins California, Colorado and Connecticut in making prison calls free.

Starting on July 1, 2023, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) website now declares that “all calls from an incarcerated person at [DOC] will be at no cost to you nor the incarcerated person calling you.” DOC lockups will also not process any pre-paid calls.

Minnesota families were spending $4.5 million per year to speak with loved ones behind bars. The prison telecom industry is dominated by a few private corporations that exploit vulnerable and financially struggling families, including Securus Technologies, which services over 3,400 U.S. prisons and jails; ViaPath Technologies — formerly Global Tel*Link – which contracts with nearly 2,000 other lockups; and Inmate Calling Solutions, which is in over 230 prisons and jails.

Much of the Minnesota prison population is composed of minorities, whose families were paying a hefty share of these firms’ fees. The authors of state House Bill HF2922, one of SF 2909’s predecessors, included several provisions that ended up in the final law to limit prison profiteers. First, state prisons as well as state-licensed detention centers for adults or juveniles must provide voice communication services free of charge for all prisoners and detainees. Also, state agencies may not receive revenue from any communication services to the incarcerated. Lastly, such communication services may not replace in-person visitation.

The bill explicitly allocated $3.1 million to provide voice communication services for incarcerated individuals, with any remaining balance at the end of the year carried into the next year. Another $500,000 is provided for virtual court coordination and modernization.

Some additional provisions in the law include funding for supportive arts for prisoners as well as initiatives to assist their reentry to society, including a culturally specific release program for incarcerated Native Americans.

In addition to the basic human right to communicate with loved ones, the Minnesota bill provides benefits to the larger society. Numerous studies show that when incarcerated individuals are released, their chances to succeed are increased and the chance of reincarceration is reduced if they have maintained strong family bonds while inside. The economy benefits also; instead of being spent on exorbitantly priced phone calls, freed-up funds can buy goods and services from local businesses.  

Source: Sahan Journal

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