Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

With two bills in the running, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, is again trying to help families with incarcerated loved ones by making phone calls to prison free.

But Elliott conceded that whether or not a bill passes this session to cut the cost of the calls – which come with a 68% commission to the state – will depend on whether the Appropriations Committee can make up the money somewhere else.

“It would leave a $7 million hole so it will come down to the Judiciary subcommittee for Appropriations whether or not the bill will pass,” Elliott said.

This is Elliott’s fourth attempt to cut the costs of prison phone calls. He and Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, have both submitted bills this session to make the calls free. Looney’s version would give inmates 90 minutes of free call time every day. Elliott’s bill would make the calls free without a time limit.

Elliott drew attention to the issue in 2019 when he and advocates pointed out that families were paying some of the most expensive rates in the country to remain in contact with incarcerated loved ones.

The high cost – about $3.45 per 15 minutes – is due largely to the 68% commission the state is getting for every call. Under the current contract with Securus Technologies, the state is receiving about $7.7 million  annually from the added cost of the calls with about $5 million going to the Judicial Branch, $2 million going to the Criminal Justice Information System and $350,000 going to the state Department of Correction for inmate programming.

The way the contract works, Securus takes 32% of the money collected by calls. But the prison telecommunications company has for at least the past five years also kept about $1.2 million extra a year which is the commission the state would have received for out-of-state inmate phone calls.

The company began withholding that portion of the commission around 2015 after a regulatory ruling that prohibits a commission on the cost of out-of-state calls, officials from the state Department of Administrative Services said in 2019.

Securus takes in an average of about $13.3 million annually from the phone calls, according to documents provided by DAS.

The agency also negotiated a contract with JPay, a subsidiary of Securus, in 2019 to provide free tablets to inmates. Under the terms, inmates have free access to educational, religious and treatment applications but must pay for entertainment such as movies, music, and games.

The state will garner between 10 to 35% of the cost of the entertainment. State Department of Corrections officials said the money will go to inmate programming. Inmates can send and receive emails from the tablets to family at .20 each with the DOC not taking a share of the revenue. The decision not to charge a .10 commission on the emails was made on Jan. 11, documents said. JPay is expected to make $3.5 million over the duration of the five-year contract. DAS has not estimated how much the DOC will make off of the tablets.

Former DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook called to have the Securus contract renegotiated to lower the cost to families nearly two years ago. Cook resigned last July. The cost of the calls, including the commission on out-of-state calls going to Securus, has remained the same.

“DAS is currently renegotiating the contract and we would be happy to share additional information when the negotiations are complete,” said DAS spokesman John McKay. “But our goal is for both intra and interstate calls to be lower than today’s contracted price.”

Elliott believes that if legislation regarding the calls is passed, the contract will automatically be renegotiated. “It’s my understanding that the terms of the contract will change if a new law comes into play,” Elliott said. “Our hands aren’t tied.”

Elliott’s first free inmate call bill was discussed on the floor in the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session as a symbolic show of support but never taken up for a vote.

His second attempt in 2020 drew good support including a $3.5 million boost from Gov. Ned Lamont to help cut the shortfall free calls would have created.

That effort stalled when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the legislature and the state in March. Elliott tried again to get the issue on the agenda during a September special session. But legislative leaders did not take up the bill.

The Judicial Branch did not receive the $3.5 million Lamont proposed to pay for probation officers in fiscal year 2020. The proposal, which would have been in lieu of the phone money, would have left the Judicial Branch with about a $2 million budget gap, Chief Court Administrator Judge Patrick Carroll said at the time.

Lamont’s spokesperson David Bednarz said that more information would be available when the governor presents his budget Wednesday.

The drive to lower the cost of phone calls to prison has broad bipartisan support, Elliott said. “But the question still remains,” he said. “How do you solve the money issue?”