Securus Technologies, the Texas-based corporation which runs the state’s inmate phone system, announced Wednesday the company will no longer oppose a bill that would give inmates and their families free phone calls from prison.
In a letter addressed to state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, Securus Chief Executive Officer Robert Pickens said his company was withdrawing opposition to HB 6714 as his company and the state review options for cheaper calls.
“We previously opposed HB 6714 out of concern that it did not clearly indicate who would cover the cost of services once charges to consumers were waived,” Pickens said. “But in the interest of good faith discussions with state officials regarding these issues, we are formally withdrawing opposition to the legislation.”
The current version of the amended bill, which may come up for a vote today, would prohibit the state Department of Correction from collecting revenue from the phone system as of 2021. The state collects $7.7 million annually from the calls.
The question now, said Elliott, who is the sponsor of the bill, is how will the state make up the lost revenue and the cost of providing phone service? “We still have to figure out a way for this to work,” Elliott said. “It’s in the hands of the leadership now.”
In early April Securus hired the Hartford-based lobbying firm Capitol Strategies Group LLC on a $40,000 retainer to lobby the DOC and Gov. Ned Lamont’s office against the prison telecommunications bill, according to state records.
The bill gained traction after several families of inmates testified at a public hearing in March that the cost of calls to loved ones in prison was prohibitive.
“My point was not that this was an awful company,” Elliott said. “My point was we on the state end need to be helping to deliver these services which are costing a penalty above and beyond what your actual sentence is.”
The calls cost $3.50 to $4.50 for 15 minutes with the state, with the state collecting 68% of the revenue from all in-state calls. Some families reported spending more than $40 a week on the calls just to stay in contact with loved ones.
Brian Highsmith of the National Consumer Law Center testified in favor of the bill, calling it “a regressive tax on some of the most economically fragile members of our community.”
The 68% translated into $7.7 million in state revenue annually. Based on a 2011 state law, the money is split between the Judicial Branch, which receives $5 million to $6 million a year for probation officers, and the state’s Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), which gets about $2 million annually. The DOC only receives about $350,000 a year, which is spent on programs for inmates.
Securus receives about $5.5 million a year from the contract. CJIS officials said earlier this month that the agency was hoping to receive another $2.5 million from the calls, or other telecommunications services offered by the company, to pay for operating expenses as the system came fully online in the next year.
The free inmate phone service bill was approved April 9 by the Judiciary Committee, but has not been sent by leadership to the Appropriations Committee for review even though it will have an impact on the budget. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said a few weeks ago that HB 6714 was unlikely to move forward since it came with a hefty loss in state revenue and the cost of the phone service would still have to be paid.
A recent version of the bill repealed the 2011 law and a law requiring the DOC to establish a debit account telephone system pilot program. That version was reintroduced as an amendment that would prohibit the DOC from making any money off of prison calls or denying any telecommunication services based on the cost of the calls. The amended version of the bill would also require the DOC to allow for in-person visits — something that is often limited when phone service is free, Elliott said.
Representatives from Securus met with state officials in late April to discuss ways to cut the cost of the calls at the urging DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook. The company said last week that the state has been given several alternatives, including one which would remove the 68% commission and provide inmates with some of the lowest phone rates in the country.
Dicken said in the letter that the company would work with the state to lower the cost of the calls regardless of whether the bill passes. The city of New York agreed in July 2018 to change its contract with Securus to provide free phone calls from all city prisons. The city houses about 10,000 inmates who are either detained for pre-trial proceedings or sentenced to one year or less. The cost of the calls provided the city with about $5 million in revenue and $2.5 million for the service under the old contract, according to a memo from the city’s Finance Division. The city now pays Securus for the service and does not collect any revenue.
If the bill passes, legislators would have two years to figure out how to make up the $7.7 million in lost revenue and the cost of the service, Elliott said. The state’s contract with Securus runs out in 2021. It is possible that the state could put out a request for proposals seeking a different telecommunications provider that would be cheaper, Elliott said.
“I’m happy with the progress,” Elliott said. “The goal was to allow families to call loved ones for free. The money is going to be a difficult barrier to overcome. But with the amendment filed, it would be implemented two years from now.”