Credit: Christine Stuart photo

The legislature acted Thursday to make phone calls free for incarcerated people but the bill’s fate was uncertain as the governor’s administration has signalled the issue will be hashed out during ongoing state budget negotiations. 

The House voted 94 to 51 to provide free phone calls from inside correctional institutions, rectifying Connecticut’s unpleasant distinction of having some of the highest prison calling fees in the country. The state was making a 68% profit on all in-state calls.

The bill lawmakers approved would make Connecticut the first state in the nation to provide free calling for inmates and their families, according to Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a New York-based advocacy group that supported the bill. 

“Today the Connecticut legislature made history by becoming the first state legislature to green light free communication in its state prisons,” Tylek said in a press release issued at 12:30 a.m. Friday. “Once signed into law, SB 972 will bring an immense amount of much-needed relief to Connecticut’s most marginalized families – those supporting incarcerated loved ones.”

However, it was not clear whether the bill would be signed into law. During a Thursday press briefing, Melissa McCaw, Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget director, suggested that reducing the cost of the phone calls was one of many competing budget priorities. 

McCaw said call fees were still a moving target as the administration worked to hammer out a budget deal with legislative leaders in the waning days of the legislative session. She expected to “make progress” on the issue, but suggested they likely would not be free.

“We believe that at least for starting point for negotiations is to make them competitive and the fact that they were at 23.8 cents and we were an outlier across the northeast was something the governor stands committed to improve,” McCaw said. “Now if there’s a path towards further adjustments that achieves the governor’s budget principles, as he’s indicated, his door is always open.”

Asked about the comments Friday, House Speaker Matt Ritter said Lamont would have to veto the bill if he did not approve of the free phone calls. He noted it had wide support in the House, including some Republican votes.

“I hope he gets there,” Ritter said. “I think it’s — we want people to talk to their families. They come back, they have those connections. The idea that we were profiting on it, it just seems untoward to many. It was pretty horrific and no one knew about it. I give the advocates a lot of credit for bringing it to light. I’m very comfortable with the bill we passed.”

The bulk of the roughly $7 million in state revenue generated annually 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 and would repeal two sections of state law that set up the allocations to the DOC, the judicial branch and the CJIS from the phone commissions.

The DOC will be required to pay for the telephone services as of Oct. 1, 2022, which is expected to cost between $3.5 and $4.5 million annually. The Appropriations Committee allocated $11.4 million in its proposed state budget to fund the inmate phone bill.

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, has been championing making the calls free for three years. He was one of several legislators that hailed the House passage of the bill as a progressive move forward that will encourage other states to do the same.

“It is a privilege to be a part of such an important fight alongside incredible community members,” Elliott said. “After years of relentless advocacy, Connecticut is decisively moving toward setting an example for the rest of the country in promoting communication in its prisons, and we’re on the right side of history. Neither corporations nor our own government can be allowed to exploit the love between incarcerated people and their families any longer – not in our state, not on our watch.”

Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.