A now vacant block at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers. (Christine Stuart file photo)

With the stroke of Gov. Ned Lamont’s pen Wednesday, Connecticut was on its way to becoming the first state in the nation to provide free phone calls to incarcerated people and their loved ones.

The passage ends a three-year battle where advocates, including Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, repeatedly pointed out that families of incarcerated loved ones have been paying a 68% state commission on all in-state calls, totalling $12.8 million annually.

“It is a privilege to have been a part of such an important fight,” Elliott said. “Connecticut has now set an example for the rest of the country and we’re on the right side of history. Corporations can no longer be allowed to exploit the love between incarcerated people and their families – not in our state, not on our watch.”

The calls, which currently cost about $4.50 for 15 minutes, impacted people like Diane Lewis, whose son was incarcerated for 14 years. Lewis spoke in support of Elliott’s drive to get free prison calls several times over the past few years, telling legislators that she would pay the prison phone bill before her electric bill just so she could hear her son’s voice.

“Finally, thanks to the labor and persistence of advocates like me, Connecticut mothers can no longer be forced to choose between communicating with their incarcerated children and paying their bills,” Lewis said. “I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished. Our state went from ranking worst in the nation on prison phone call affordability to being the first to make it free to call an incarcerated loved one.”

Elliott also pulled in support from criminal justice reform advocacy groups from around the Northeast, including Worth Rises, a New York-based non-profit that was instrumental in getting phone calls to New York City jails free.

“This historic legislation will change lives: It will keep food on the table for struggling families, children in contact with their parents and our communities safer,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises.

The law Lamont signed Wednesday makes the calls for both incarcerated juveniles and adults free as of Oct. 1, 2022. The law also stipulates that the state Department of Correction can’t reduce the number of in-person visits to inmates because calls are now free.

The budget implementer that was passed Thursday will make the calls free as of July 1, 2022 and require each inmate to receive 90 minutes of phone time a day if they so choose.

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said the phones in the facility would have to be used from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. if every inmate was allowed to use their 90 minutes per day. 

He said his calculations show it would cost about $50 million to provide the phone calls for free and you would need six phones per 100 inmates. 

Elliott introduced similar bills in the past few years but none made it to a House or Senate vote, in part because of the cost of funding the calls and replacing the 68% commission.

The state received about $7 million from the commission which was going to the judicial branch to fund probation officers and the Criminal Justice Information System. The DOC was receiving $350,000 annually from the commission on the calls.

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 and keeps about $6 million annually. DAS now will be required to renegotiate the contract to include the actual cost of providing phone service to the prisons.

The cost of providing the free calls is expected to range between $3.5 and $4.5 million annually, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.

While Lamont proposed reducing the cost of the calls by a few cents in July, the Appropriations Committee opted to utilize $11.4 million in savings from prison closures to make the calls free.

The passage of the law came just as families were dealing with a marginal increase in prison call costs due to a Federal Communications Commission ruling.

“We made 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 prison,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, 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.”