Osborn Correctional Institute (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

As the legislature is considering two bills that would make calls to inmates free, state officials announced Thursday that the cost of prison phone calls will be reduced from 23 cents a minute to 19 cents a minute as of July 1.

The reduction is directly tied to Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal to give the Judicial Branch $1 million to offset the revenue loss to make the calls slightly cheaper, officials at the state Office of Policy and Management said. 

“While we are happy to announce the reductions in the cost of calls, we acknowledge that there is still more work to do in making the phone calls to families more affordable,” said John McKay, spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services. The contract extension with Securus Technologies, the prison telecommunications company that manages the calls, was negotiated by DAS. 

The rate will be in effect from July 1 to March 2022, when the contract will be renegotiated, McKay said.

DAS had been in negotiations to make the calls cheaper when Lamont offered the money, a DAS official said.

Advocates who have been lobbying against the state’s high prison phone rates said the .4 cent reduction is an “insult” to families who are struggling to support incarcerated loved ones.

“The new rate brings the state from 50th to 45th in the nation for the affordability of a prison phone call,” said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises which has been supporting legislation to make the calls free. “But unfortunately we expected this after we saw the Governor’s budget. The idea that they want applause for this change is the clearest sign yet that the executive branch fails to understand the problem and cannot be trusted to address this issue. The legislature must take action to create relief for families immediately.”

The calls disproportionately impact Black and Latino families since 72% of the state’s prison population are people of color, advocates said.

Tylek’s organization was able to get free calls in New York City jails and has been working closely with Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, for two years to support his bills to make the calls in Connecticut free.

Elliot and Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, have both submitted bills this session to make the calls free. Looney’s version, SB 520, would give inmates a minimum of 90 minutes of free call time every day. Elliott’s bill, HB 6262, would make the calls free without a time limit.

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“It is clear there is disconnect between what we mean in the legislature when we talk about equity versus what the administration believes,” Elliott said. “Going from dead last in the country with regard to costs to 45th is not exactly a stunning leap ahead. We continue to fight for free calls for the incarcerated population because it is the best way to ensure that our justice system embodies rehabilitation and not simply punishment.”

Elliott first 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.

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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 previous contract with Securus, the state was 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.

Gov. Ned Lamont offered the Judicial Branch $1 million in his two-year budget last week to help cut the cost of the calls.  The money will offset the .4 reduction, OPM officials said.

Under the renegotiated contract extension, Securus will get 1 cent less per minute and the state will collect 3 cents less per minute in commission for in-state calls, McKay said. The state will still get 68% commission on the reduced rate, DAS officials said.

McKay said DAS would renegotiate the contract in March 2022 with an eye toward “realizing even greater savings for inmates and their families.”

Under the previous and the renegotiated contract, Securus makes 32% of the money collected from in-state calls. But the company also keeps 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 state from collecting a commission on the cost of out-of-state calls, officials from DAS said in 2019.

Although the state can’t collect the commission, the cost of the calls was never reduced to reflect that the state wasn’t getting its 68% cut, DAS officials confirmed. Securus will get the entire 19 cents per minute for out-of-state calls under the renegotiated contract, McKay said.

Securus takes in an average of about $13.3 million annually from the phone calls, according to documents provided by DAS. The state’s tally is based on 68% of in-state calls, officials said.

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 get a commission ranging from 10 to 35% on the entertainment applications. Inmates and their families will be charged 20 cents per email under the tablet contract with the state taking no commission. The commission from the entertainment applications will go to inmate programming, officials with the state Department of Correction said.