HARTFORD, CT — Diane Lewis has spent about $250 a month in phone calls for more than a decade to stay in contact with her 33-year-old incarcerated son.
Although her son will be released soon, she said she was speaking for the thousands of mothers behind her when she stood in support of HB 6714 which would make phone calls from state prisons free during a press conference Tuesday.
“There are mothers who haven’t talked to their sons in years” because of the cost of the calls, Lewis said. “I always pay the phone bill first, even if it means paying the cable bill late.”
The bill was approved 29-19 Tuesday by the Appropriations Committee despite some confusion over what the bill would mean for the state.
Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who sponsored the free inmate call legislation, is now concerned that Republicans will stall its passage in the House by refusing to set a time limit on the debate.
“If we were to spend eight or 10 hours on the bill, we wouldn’t have time for other bills that need to get done,” Elliott said.
Some Republicans on the Appropriations Committee spoke against the bill Tuesday — just hours after Lewis and about two dozen others expressed their support for the legislation.
The proposed legislation, which would go into effect two years from now, would prohibit the state from keeping any portion of the revenue from the calls — a factor that is driving up the cost for the families of inmates, supporters of the bill said.
The state makes a 68% return on all in-state calls — totaling about $7.7 million a year. Securus Technologies, the vendor who manages the state’s inmate phone system, makes about $5.5 million a year — including $2 million that is the state’s portion of the revenue on out of state calls.
The Texas-based company claimed in a letter to the state Department of Administrative Services in 2014 that it can’t turn over the additional revenue on out-of-state calls because of a Federal Communications Commission ruling. An FCC spokesman said in early May that the agency has never prohibited prison telecommunications companies from providing a portion of the revenue from out-of-state inmate calls. The company has been keeping about $2 million a year generated by the 68% profit since 2014, according to DAS officials.
Of the $7.7 million annually the state receives, about $5.5 million goes to the Judicial Branch to pay for probation officers, another $2 million goes to the state’s Criminal Justice Information System and $350,000 goes to the state Department of Correction for inmate programs.
The calls cost $3.50 to $4.87 for 15 minutes. The DOC has the right to cut off the call at any time — but the person paying for the call still incurs the entire fee, said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who supports the bill.
Securus renegotiated its contract with the state in early March after the company learned about the proposal for free phone calls, said Elliott, who was flanked Tuesday by supporters from several non-profit agencies who deal with individuals who are incarcerated and their families.
Elliott told the group gathered at the Legislative Office building that Securus threatened to pull the phone system out as the bill gained traction and is now trying to re-negotiate with the state to make calls more affordable.
Connecticut ranks 49th in the country in terms of affordability of inmate phone calls, according to Worth Rises, a New York-based nonprofit that supports inmates and their families. The organization has been heavily involved in the push to make inmate calls free in Connecticut.
If the bill becomes law, Connecticut would be the first state in the nation to provide free phone service to inmates, supporters said.
But many members of the Appropriations Committee, both Democrats and Republicans, seemed confused during a debate about the state’s portion of the revenue and what the bill would do.
Some Republicans agreed that the charges were excessive. “I think it’s reprehensible that the state is profiting 68% on phone calls for incarcerated individuals,” Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, said. “This should not be a revenue stream for the state, I’m offended to even look at this.”
But Bolinsky was under the impression that the proposed law would continue to allow the state to keep revenue.
Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Toni Walker, D-New Haven, was unclear about where the state’s portion of the revenue went. She wanted the issue brought “front and center” to rectify the problem, she said. But Walker also conceded that the committee hadn’t had a chance to review what the company was charging.
“This conversation has to be continued,” Walker said. “Plus it’s important we have a chance to look at the charges this company has been able to levy on the prisoners in our correction system.”
The proposal has drawn national attention from political commentators such as Van Jones, who sent a representative to the press conference. Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, tweeted her support of the bill over the weekend.
Lewis pointed out to supporters that she wants to hear from her son in the same way a mother wants to hear from a child who has left for college or who is in the military. “We love and worry about our children too,” Lewis said. “My kid made a mistake. Does that make me less of a mother?”
The bill will now move on to the House calendar — but it is unclear when, or if, it will come up for discussion.
The session ends at midnight June 5.