(SFIO CRACHO via Shutterstock)

Even as state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, has reintroduced a bill to cut the cost of phone calls from incarcerated individuals to their families, the state Department of Correction announced Friday that all inmates will be receiving tablets with the state charging for emails and entertainment programming.

Officials didn’t have an estimate for how much revenue would be generated by the state receiving a fee for access to movies, books and other entertainment on the tablets, which were provided by JPay Inc., a prison communication service. JPay is a subsidiary of Securus Technologies, the vendor that runs the prison phone system. The contract will not cost the state, but JPay is expected to make $3.5 million from the premium services, according to state officials.

In a program acting Commissioner Angel Quiros called “a win-win situation,” the state will charge an inmate .19 to send each email to a family member from an approved list, according to the contract. The state waived the .10 the DOC would have made on the emails, officials said. 

The issue of the cost of phone calls between inmates and their families has been festering for at least two years with the state making around $7.7 million a year from the calls.

In 2019 and again in 2020, Elliott introduced a bill that would have made calls from prison free. The 2020 legislative session was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

He’s giving it another shot this session with the bill now making its way to the Judiciary Committee.

“We have legislators on both sides of the aisle outraged over the state taking kickbacks in the Securus contract,” Elliott said. “Profiting off our incarcerated is not what our system is trying to do. Our system should be to rehabilitate people not to profit off of people’s lack of freedom.”

Elliott contends that he has no problem with inmates being charged for movies or other services that everyone else must purchase. But he does have an issue with charging inmates to send emails to family members. 

“The whole idea of charging people to send an email is moving us backwards,” Elliott said. “The whole point is how can we have people stay in touch in a way that’s not punitive. This is not a step in that direction.”

Under the current contract for prison phone service 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 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.

According to DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci, the revenue generated by the tablets is “earmarked for programming and services that have a direct, favorable impact on the inmate population, with the ultimate goal of successful reentry.”

Advocates for inmates and their families have long argued that the cost of phone calls to stay connected to their families is prohibitive at about $4.50 for 15 minutes.

The tablets are a double-edged sword, said Ashley Turner, who has a loved one who is incarcerated.

“Obviously this is an added expense to an underpaid population who is relying heavily on loved ones for their basic needs and here in Connecticut we are already price-gouged on phone calls,” Turner said.  “However at least he’s going to get experience with technology and hopefully it will open the door to increased communication via emails and maybe someday calls or video visits.  I do think the prices are high for what they are getting but I’m sure part of that is to ensure the DOC gets their cut. On some purchases it’s as high as 50% kickback to the state.”

The tablets are being piloted at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and will eventually make their way to all 9,000 inmates held by the DOC. Access to educational, religious, legal, treatment, life and vocational skills applications and internal emails within the DOC are free.

Inmates will have to pay for audiobooks, movies, games, news subscriptions and music with the costs ranging from $.99 to $19.99. The state will get a 10%, 30% or 35% cut of the entertainment programing, according to the contract. Inmates will also pay $.25 to $1 per page for printing documents with the state gathering 50% of all printing costs.

The inmates will not have internet access, DOC officials said. The tablets will open up possibilities for greater educational programming and more connection with families which may serve to “enhance family connections and encourage positive behavior,” they said in a press release announcing the program.

“From all perspectives this seems to be a win-win situation,” said Commissioner Quiros. “The inmate population gets educational materials and contact with their loved ones, which are factors contributing to successful re-entry.”

But the connection is coming at a cost to the families who want to remain close with their incarcerated loved ones, said Worth Rises Executive Director Bianca Tylek, who worked with Elliott to advocate for free calls.

“It’s absolutely outrageous that the state is signing another revenue-sharing contract with the same problematic vendor,” said Tylek who was instrumental in getting free phone calls for inmates in New York City jails. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic with families struggling while the state is celebrating its own surplus.”

The Department of Administrative Services has stated that the contract with Securus cannot be renegotiated to lower costs for families without legislation, Tylek said. “But now they have recreated another revenue contract with the same company,” she said.