Sen. Gary Winfield (Christine Stuart / photo)

The Senate passed a bill Thursday with mostly bipartisan support making phone calls to inmates free. 

The legislation would change the longstanding arrangement that lets the state collect a 68% commission on the calls.

The 29-6 vote followed more than an hour of debate and an attempt to require inmates to pay for the cost of their calls without the additional state commission.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Advocates hailed the legislation as a step toward helping former inmates successfully reenter society by keeping them connected to their families while incarcerated.

“For the first time in our state’s history we have passed a bill out of a chamber that allows families to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones for no cost,” Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said. “The Connecticut legislature is committed to creating a society that values all of its members and seeks to rehabilitate and lift people up. Now we must ensure this bill becomes law by getting this bill passed in the House, and finally, getting the signature of the governor.”

“With today’s news, the Connecticut legislature took another huge step towards protecting Connecticut’s most marginalized families – those supporting incarcerated loved ones – and making history as the first state to provide free communication in its prisons,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a New York-based advocacy group responsible for getting free calls in New York City jails.

“This will increase the odds they will successfully re-enter society and not be likely to return to a life of crime,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said.

Charges for calls to inmates generate about $7 million a year in state revenue, most of which is earmarked for the judicial branch to pay for probation officers and the state’s Criminal Justice Information System. The Department of Correction also received $350,000 for inmate programming.

SB 972 would make phone calls to and from prison free for inmates and their families by October 1, 2022. It would repeal the state statutes that allow the judicial branch, CJIS and the DOC to receive revenues from the calls. The DOC will be required to pay for the telephone services then, which is expected to cost $3.5 to 4.5 million annually.

Closing Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s “super maximum” prison, on July 1, will save state money, which will make up the revenue shortfall, said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, which approved the bill earlier this month.

Although several Republicans voted in favor of the legislation, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, tried to pass an amendment to make inmates pay for the service. 

“Some people, if you do it for free, don’t associate a value for that service,” Kissel said in arguing that outside prison, people have to pay for phone service.

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, a former police officer, pointedly criticized the bill.

“The taxpayer should not be saddled with this cost the way they have been saddled with other costs because someone decided to break the law,” Champagne said, before joining five other Republicans voting against the bill. 

“We have an opportunity to make it possible for families to talk to their loved ones inside and for those behind bars to be able to have communications that are critical to who they will be when they come out of the prison,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. 

“These people are going to be our neighbors when they come home, but they’re left inside of our prisons on their own. If we can address this and we don’t, we’d be irresponsible. But above all, sometimes there’s value in doing something that’s not just about the dollars. And this is one of those issues.”

If the bill becomes law, Connecticut will become the first state in the nation to provide free calls to inmates, according to Worth Rises.