Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, co-chairs the Judiciary Committee (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The Judiciary Committee approved a bill Tuesday designed to keep inmates and their families connected through free phone service instead of the high cost of calls they are paying now.

But it would come at an $8 million loss in revenue for other criminal justice programs, state officials said.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 6714: An Act Concerning The Cost Of Telecommunication Services For Inmates

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HB 6714, sponsored by Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, would end the state’s practice of charging inmates and their families to call home. The bill would also allow inmates to have access to free Internet and video Internet service when appropriate.

By state law, the state Department of Correction is allowed to contract with a telecommunications vendor which can charge inmates amounts above standard phone rates for making calls. Some legislators expressed surprise that the state was profiting from inmates and their families.

“I think it was fairly shocking and disturbing to many members of this committee that the state is at or near the top in what it charges inmates for telecommunications,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who spoke in favor of the bill.

The state uses Securus Technologies, a firm that proponents of the bill say often charges “excessive” rates that are thinly veiled “kickbacks,” preying on families who have no other choice if they want to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones.

“This is a regressive tax on some of the most economically fragile members of our community,” Brian Highsmith, of the National Consumer Law Center, said in his testimony in favor of the bill. “The system harms all Connecticut residents, and harms these vulnerable communities the most.”

Highsmith called the company’s practices in Bristol County, Massachusetts, an “illegal kickback scheme” that is “nearly doubling the cost of calls made by prisoners.”

“In Bristol County, as in Connecticut, prisoners who want to communicate by phone with family, friends and legal representatives have only one option available: they must use the privatized calling system operated by phone vendor Securus,” Highsmith said.

The state recently extended its contract with the company for two more years until 2021, Stafstrom said. There could be implications if the state tried to pull out of the contract, he said. But Stafstrom said the state Department of Correction was going to try to work with the company to come to a resolution.

Representatives of Texas-based Securus said Tuesday afternoon they had no way of contacting company officials for comment. A call to the Securus Foundation, which is listed on the company’s website as an organization that helps recently released inmates and their families, was not returned.

The calls cost more than $4 per 15 minutes. A woman who testified in favor of the bill during a March 25 public hearing said that the cost leaves little time or money for her grandson to talk to his mother, who is incarcerated at York Correctional Institution.

The woman, whose name was changed to protect her identity, tries to put $40 a month in her daughter’s prison phone account so she can call her 14-year-old son on a regular basis, she said. “There are months I have to put lesser amounts on the phone because I find myself choosing between adding the usual amount and giving up something else,” said the woman, who is raising her 14-year-old grandson while her daughter is incarcerated.

The calls generate about $8 million a year in state revenue. The Judicial Branch receives $5.5 million to fund probation officer positions. The Criminal Justice Information System, which allows law enforcement agencies to access information on criminal histories, receives about $3 million, and the Correction Department receives about $350,000, state officials said.

The Judicial Branch noted in their testimony that the agency was taking no position on the bill. But the testimony submitted by the External Affairs Division indicated that the Branch received $5.5 million in 2018 from the revenue generated by prison telecommunications, which is used for adult probation staff and programs.

“That $5.5 million funds staffing and other expenses related to the Probation Transition Program,” the testimony submitted by External Affairs said. The program supervises those recently released from prison who were also sentenced to probation. The money also funds the Judicial Branch’s Technical Violations Unit, which provides enhanced supervision for certain people in violation of probation.

“We do not have the necessary funding in our budget to make up for this loss of revenue,” External Affairs said. The Judicial Branch was already facing a two-year, $58 million cut by Gov. Ned Lamont.

Lamont’s administration has not officially taken a position on the bill, said Marc Pelka, the undersecretary for criminal justice in the Office of Policy and Management.

“The impact would need to be offset, which would likely mean cuts to those Judicial Branch programs,” Pelka said.

One woman who testified with a group from the Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative, a program within the Central Connecticut State University Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, said she’s spending $40 a week on prison calls so that her ex-boyfriend, who is incarcerated, and his son, who she is raising, can remain connected.

“I have trouble getting by because I have to think about saving money just to spend it on the calls and am now also caring for his young child,” the woman said. “You don’t realize how quickly the minutes pass and just how much it adds up each day, week, month.”

The high cost of the phone calls is an example of the types of criminal justice fees that are imposed on incarcerated individuals and their families, said Joanna Weiss, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national organization that seeks to eliminate fees associated with the criminal justice system.

“Some state and local governments have gone beyond simply trying to recoup costs through justice system fees and are trying to generate profits by imposing fees on people who are incarcerated, regardless of whether they have been convicted of any crime,” Weiss said.