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A bill that would make phone calls to inmates free cleared its last committee hurdle and will move on to the Senate after the Appropriations Committee voted to advance it, 46 to 2.

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who has championed making the calls to state prisons free for three years, hailed the vote as a sign that the legislature is ready to make the state stop charging a commission to inmates and their families to collect more money.

“The most exciting part about this inflection point is that it is now clear this will be a bipartisan bill with 40 people voting in favor and only two voting against,” Elliott said. “As long as the Governor (Ned Lamont) agrees with the legislature that the state shouldn’t be profiting off the backs of the incarcerated, then this bill will become law this year.”

The state has been making a 68% commission on all in-state prison phone calls for years. The bulk of the roughly $7 million a year in state revenue generated by the calls has gone to the judicial branch to pay for probation officers in the technical violations unit and the state’s Criminal Justice Information System. The state Department of Correction also received $350,000 for inmate programming.

The bill would make voice communication services free for inmates and their families by October 1, 2022. The DOC will be required to pay for the telephone services then, which is expected to cost $3.5 to 4.5 million annually. The commission revenue that has been going to the judicial branch and CJIS will be replaced by money the DOC will save by closing Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s “super maximum” prison, on July 1, said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. Two other prisons are also slated to close in the next year or two, officials said.

The bill would only impact phone calls, Osten said. Inmates and family members can message each other through a new tablet initiative at a cost of 20 cents per message. Those costs would remain, Osten said.

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Elliott previously introduced similar bills but none made it to a House or Senate vote, in part because of the cost of funding the calls and replacing the funding for the judicial branch and CJIS.

Under a contract with the state Department of Administrative Services, the prison phone vendor, Securus Technologies, pulls in about $13 million a year for phone calls to and from the prisons. Securus keeps about $6 million of the $13 million annually. DAS will be required to renegotiate the contract if the legislation passes, officials said.

Gov. Ned Lamont allocated $1 million in his 2022-23 budget to reduce the cost of the calls by four cents to $.19 a minute as of July 1. But that wasn’t enough to make up the nearly $6.5 million gap the passage of the bill would have created.

Instead, the Appropriations Committee opted to use the savings from prison closures to make the calls free.

Minutes before Monday’s committee vote, Sen. Craig Miner, R-Brookfield, called the commissions an “unfortunate revenue stream that has been created over time.” 

“I am hopeful through the budget process that those other costs will be funded,” said Miner who then voted in favor of the bill.

The cost of the calls, which averages about $4.50 for 15 minutes, is difficult for many families who are already struggling with paying for housing and food during the pandemic, advocates said during a public hearing on the bill.

“We are thrilled to see the Connecticut legislature get fully behind SB 972,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an advocacy group that was able to get New York City to provide free phone calls in its jails.

“The support that was demonstrated in yesterday’s vote is a clear sign that legislators have finally recognized the harm caused by exploitative prison phone rates and are ready to do something about it. We are looking forward to working with leadership in the Senate and House over the coming weeks to get SB 972 across the finish line. Families have been waiting too long.”