Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie
Martin Garcia, from Worth Rises, discusses the impact that high phone fees for people calling their incarcerated loved ones has on the poor. (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – After bringing attention last year to high phone costs for families calling their loved ones in state prisons, state Rep. Josh Elliott is again leading the charge to pass legislation to end the practice of allowing the state to profit from the calls.

Currently, the state collects a 68% commission on all calls family members make to inmates.

“We absolutely, hands down, are going to get this done,’ Elliott told a crowd gathered Thursday at the Legislative Office Building to show support for the proposed bill.

Elliott and advocates for prison reform, including the New York-based advocacy group “Worth Rises,” want the state to end what critics call a “kickback” to Connecticut coffers by renegotiating the phone contract that adds a commission to the cost of the calls.

Elliott and the rest of the advocates are hoping proposed legislation currently before the Judiciary Committee will put an end to the practice.

The cost of the calls is about $5 for 15 minutes of phone time. The phone fees heavily impact the poorest communities in the state whose residents are more likely to be incarcerated, said Brittany Kane, project coordinator for the Connecticut Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative.

“Children and families have not committed any crime but they are serving time with their loved one every step of the way,” Kane said.

The state is taking in about $7.7 million annually by charging up to 68% more than the actual cost of the service for certain in-state calls. The state’s Criminal Justice Information System receives about $2 million annually from the phone contract and the state Department of Correction receives about $350,000, which is used to pay for programs for inmates.

The rest of the money, about $5.5 million, goes to the Judicial Branch to pay for probation officers in a specialized unit that works to ensure that those on probation don’t get rearrested for technical violations.

The effort to reduce the cost of calls was given a boost last week when Gov. Ned Lamont agreed to give the Judicial Branch $3.5 million in funding to pay for the 32 probation officers funded by the phone commissions.

Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll lauded the $3.5 million – but also pointed out that it came with a $2 million cut elsewhere. Advocates for reducing the inmate phone rates cried foul at the suggestion that the Judicial Branch still needed the $2 million, which was supposed to fund the probation officers.

“The only reason that it sounds like a lot of money is because the state has been unethically taking it as a commission,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises.

The Department of Administrative Services contends that the contract for Securus that includes the commission can’t be renegotiated unless the legislature makes some kind of move, Tylek said. But that’s an excuse, Tylek said,

“DAS could renegotiate the contract and demand Securus absorb the hit,” Tylek said.

However, advocates want the state to make the prison phone calls free.

“The governor provided $3.5 million and cut $2 million from the Judicial Branch budget that they didn’t need to fund the probation officers,” Tylek said. “We’re asking the legislature to find it in their budget to fill the $2.3 million gap and to find $1.7 million for the phone service.”

Prison phone providers are “exploiting our bond” by charging commissions above regular phone rates for families who are trying to stay in contact with loved ones while they are incarcerated, said Martin Garcia, community coordinator for Worth Rises.

As a formerly incarcerated individual who also has a parent who has been incarcerated, Garcia understands the issue all too well, he told the crowd. “We all hurt because we couldn’t afford to speak every day,” Garcia said.

During the 2019 legislative session, Elliott’s bill made it out of the Judiciary and Appropriations committees and was discussed on the House floor, but was never passed.

This session, Elliott said support is building and he’s hoping to get the legislation to the governor’s desk. The contract for Securus that includes the commission can’t be renegotiated unless the legislature makes some kind of move, Tylek said.

“If we want to consider ourselves a leader in criminal justice reform this is one of the first steps we have to take,” Elliott said.