The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Monday to move forward SB 972, which would make phone calls, emails and video visits to prison inmates free as of Oct.1, 2022.

But since the bill carries a $6 to $7 million annual price tag, it will have to pass through the Appropriations Committee before it can get a vote in the House and the Senate.  

“I’m grateful to the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee who carried this bill two years and who carried this bill through committee today,” Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who has championed free inmate phone calls for three years. “There is still a ways to go but this is a really good first step.”

Democrats on the committee, including Co-Chairs Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, voted in favor of moving the bill forward. But several Republicans who voted against the bill stated that the situation must be addressed.

“I certainly think something has to be done here,” Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said. “The fact that the government is, in effect, benefiting over these communications that are necessary for these individuals behind bars, I find in some ways atrocious, quite frankly.”

Connecticut has some of the nation’s highest rates for prison phone calls, largely due to the 68% commission the state gets on all in-state calls, according to Worth Rises, an advocacy group that was successful in getting free calls to and from New York City jails.

“We’re excited to see SB 972 moving forward with its passage out of the Judiciary Committee today,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises who has worked with Elliott for two years to get the bill passed. “It’s clear that the testimony shared by incarcerated people, their families, and advocates last week moved the committee.” 

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Tylek acknowledged that it’s early in the process, but said she was encouraged that the legislation would end the practice of the state taking a “kickback” at the expense of low-income families. “Families with incarcerated loved ones are in deep need of relief from the cost of calls,” Tylek said.

Fishbein said he voted against the bill because he wants more work done on the financial end. But he said he’s willing to continue working on the legislation to achieve the goal of reducing the cost of the calls.  

Several other Republicans agreed that something had to be done, whether the cost of the calls were reduced in incremental steps or based on a fee that would allow the state to break even but not make a profit.

The cost of the calls, which averages about $4.50 for 15 minutes, falls largely on women, particularly Black women, since people of color make up about 72% of the prison population, Worth Rises said.

Under a contract with the state Department of Administrative Services, the prison phone vendor, Securus Technologies, makes about $13 million a year for phone calls to and from the prisons. Of that, the commission nets the state about $7 million annually, with the bulk of the money going to the judicial branch and the Criminal Justice Information System. The Department of Correction receives $350,000 of the commission for inmate programming.

SB 972 would make voice communication services free for inmates and their families and would repeal two sections of the state statutes that set up the allocations to the DOC, the judicial branch and the CJIS from the phone commissions, Winfield said before Monday’s vote.

The judicial branch “fully endorses” the effort to eliminate the fees, according to testimony submitted by its external affairs division. But Gov. Ned Lamont has only offered $1 million to offset the $3.2 million that would evaporate if the bill passes, the branch said. The judicial branch uses the money to fund 28 probation officers in a unit that helps prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from violating probation. It says it needs another $2.2 million in the budget annually to keep the officers and also provide free inmate communication.

“The impact of losing these staff members would not only impact the judicial branch, but the criminal justice community as well,” according to the testimony.

The $1 million Lamont offered in his 2022-2023 budget reduced the cost of the calls by four cents to $.19 a minute as of July 1.

State Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros said negotiation of a new contract has not begun, but that he would support a reduction in the cost of the calls.