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Sen. Cathy Osten and Rep. Toni Walker, co-chair the Appropriations Committee (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

A coalition of 20 advocacy groups is calling on lawmakers to lessen the financial burden on families with incarcerated loved ones by passing legislation in the upcoming special session to make prison phone calls free.

But it doesn’t appear that any legislation with a price tag will be on the agenda, according to one state senator.

The cost of phone calls to remain in contact with an incarcerated loved one is disproportionately falling on people of color who are already struggling with the financial stresses of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the letter sent Thursday to legislative leaders including Appropriations Committee Co-Chairs Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven.

“Prior to the pandemic, nearly one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt trying to stay connected and women – largely Black and brown women – carried 87 percent of the burden,” the letter said.

Rampant unemployment during the pandemic has caused the same families to struggle to pay rent and buy food, making the cost of prison phone calls even more financially stressful, the organizations said.

“These families and their children are going without food and facing evictions,” the letter said. “They are the same families and children disproportionately targeted by mass incarceration and reliant on prison communication.”

Under its contract with Securus Technologies, 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 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.

In April 2019, the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees approved a bill that would have made the calls free. However, it died on the House calendar without a vote.

The state then entered into talks with Securus in May 2019 to cut the cost of the calls which cost families about $4-5 for 15 minutes, but no action on the multi-year contract with the prison telecommunications giant has been taken.

State Rep. Josh Elliot, D-Hamden, led the charge to resurrect the bill early in the 2020 session and the effort received a boost in February 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.

But all legislative action stopped when the pandemic began to spread across Connecticut in mid-March.

The 20 advocacy groups, including the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, the CT Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative, Greater Hartford Legal Aid, and Worth Rises, a New York-based organization that focuses on mass incarceration issues, contend that the actual cost of the calls is between $1.1 to $1.3 million – but families were spending $14 million before the pandemic hit.

The groups want the legislature to take up the issue during the special session expected to be scheduled next week. Judiciary Co-Chair Sen. Gary Winfield said he has been a proponent of cutting the cost of the calls from the start, but at this point it’s in the hands of the Appropriations Committee.

“I will definitely engage with them,” Winfield said. “But when it comes to funding, it’s always an Appropriations issue.”

Osten said she had not seen the letter yet, but she was under the impression that legislative leaders had agreed not to tackle any financial bills during the special session.

“It’s getting a little late to get something on the agenda,” Osten said. “Maybe if they had approached us a month ago, we could have looked at it.”

DOC officials did grant inmates two free phone calls a week when in-person prison visits were cancelled in March due to the pandemic. But the advocacy groups said that given the fact that roughly 16% of the state’s prison population has been infected with COVID-19, including seven inmates who have died, it’s not enough.

“Like all families, families with incarcerated loved ones have sought connectedness during this critical time,” the letter said. “In fact, families impacted by incarceration are desperate to connect because the well-being of their loved ones is more at risk than most.”