Connecticut Legislature Offers Up Bill That Would Make Prison Phone Calls Free

from the let's-get-this-trending! dept

A lot of rights just vanish into the ether once you’re incarcerated. Some of this makes sense. You have almost no privacy rights when being housed by the state. Your cell can be searched and your First Amendment right to freedom of association can be curtailed in order to prevent criminal conspiracies from being implemented behind bars.

But rights don’t disappear completely. The government has an obligation to make sure you’re cared for and fed properly — something that rarely seems to matter to jailers.

Treating people as property has negative outcomes. Not only are “good” prisoners expected to work for pennies a day, but their families are expected to absorb outlandish expenses just to remain in contact with their incarcerated loved ones. The government loves its paywalls and it starts with prison phone services.

Cellphone adoption changed the math for service providers. After a certain point, customers were unwilling to pay per text message. And long distance providers realized they could do almost nothing to continue to screw over phone users who called people outside of their area codes. Some equity was achieved once providers realized “long distance” was only a figure of profitable speech and text messages were something people expected to be free, rather than a service that paid phone companies per character typed.

But if you’re in prison, it’s still 1997. The real world is completely different but your world is controlled by companies that know how to leverage communications into a profitable commodity. As much as we, the people, apparently hate the accused and incarcerated, they’re super useful when it comes to funding local spending. Caged people are still considered “taxpayers,” even when they can’t generate income or vote in elections.

So, for years, we’ve chosen to additionally punish inmates by turning basic communication options into high priced commodities. And we’ve decided they don’t have any right to complain, even when the fees are astronomical or prison contractors are either helping law enforcement listen in to conversations with their legal reps or making it so prohibitively expensive only the richest of us can support an incarcerated person’s desire to remain connected to their loved ones.

Connecticut legislators have had enough. Whether it will be enough to flip the status quo table remains to be seen. But, for now, a bill proposed by the Connecticut House aims to strip the profit from for-profit service providers, as well as the for-profit prisons that pad their budgets with kickbacks from prison phone service providers. (h/t Kathy Morse)

Connecticut holds the dismal distinction of being the state with the most expensive prison phone calls in the country. But a new bill in the state legislature may soon make Connecticut the first state to make prison phone calls free.

Senate Bill 520 would require Connecticut state prisons to offer telephone or other communication to incarcerated people free of charge, at a minimum of 90 minutes per day. The state could not collect any revenue from operating these services.

Seems like a reasonable response. 90 minutes per day should make most calls from prisons free for all but the most talkative. And I hope those profiting from these services socked some money away for a legislative rainy day. They’ve certainly had the opportunity. As this report notes, prison call services raked in over $13 million in fees in 2018 alone. There’s no reason to believe this amount declined in 2019 or 2020, especially when 2020 gave people millions of reasons to avoid in-person visits with anyone.

The bill [PDF] is short and sweet — somewhat of a surprise considering it was crafted by public servants who often seem to believe they’re being paid by the word. Here it is in its entirety:

AN ACT CONCERNING THE COST OF TELECOMMUNICATION SERVICES FOR INCARCERATED PERSONS.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:

That title 18 of the general statutes be amended to require the Department of Correction to provide voice or other telecommunication services to incarcerated persons free of cost for a minimum of ninety minutes per day.

Statement of Purpose: To provide certain cost-free telecommunication services for incarcerated persons.

As it says on the tin, the purpose of the legislation is to provide prisoners with free phone calls, rather than allow them to be subjected to per-minute fees last viewed as “reasonable” sometime in the early 1990s. (And only viewed as “reasonable” by long distance providers, not the captive market they provided service to. [And “captive” means people who have few options in terms of service providers, not just those locked behind physical bars.])

Expect significant pushback. And it won’t just be coming from prison phone service providers like Securus. It will also come from local law enforcement agencies which receive a percentage of these fees — something most people would call a kickback, even if law enforcement continues to argue that it isn’t.

If this passes, this will be the first successful effort that covers a whole state. Pockets of prison phone fee resistance have been found elsewhere prior to this (New York City, San Francisco) but it has yet to be implemented at state level. This bill would be the first to make it illegal to charge for prison phone calls across an entire state.

This is the sort of legislation that should be adopted across the nation. Prisons — for better or worse — are a public service. They shouldn’t be subject to the predatory behavior of private companies. Making it prohibitively expensive to talk to loved ones should be considered “cruel,” if not “unusual.” It serves no deterrent effect. All it does is enforce the unspoken fact that people in prisons are no longer considered “people.” That’s not how our justice system is supposed to work.

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Comments on “Connecticut Legislature Offers Up Bill That Would Make Prison Phone Calls Free”

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8 Comments
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Reminds me of something…

The bill [PDF] is short and sweet — somewhat of a surprise considering it was crafted by public servants who often seem to believe they’re being paid by the word.

You know what was also short and sweet and accomplished a lot of good? §230 of the Communications Decency Act. Hopefully, this does similar great things like the legislation written by now-Senator Ron Wyden (D) and former SEC Chairman Christopher Cox (R).

aerinai (profile) says:

But it messes with their bottom line!

Staying connected to their loved ones can help a person transition back into society easier, there are benefits and studies that support this view. But if we start letting them actually have friends and family that aren’t incarcerated, they might not come back to prison! And then how is Securus and these private prisons supposed to make their money! How dare you give them free phone calls! Think of the capitalism!

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

All the wrong reasons

I think it’s fairly safe to say that anyone objecting to this will be doing so for only the wrong reasons, with the only question being what particular reason they’re using.

Will it be anger that they’ll no longer be able to profit off of a quite literal captive customer-base?

Being upset that kickbacks from the main company will no longer be flowing to them?

Or perhaps they’ll just be vexxed that prisoners are being shown the tiniest sliver of empathy and humanity by being allowed to talk to friends and family without having to pay an extortionists to do so?

This is absolutely a good move and one I dearly hope passes and is taken up in as many other states as possible, but the fact that it even needed to be spelled out that yes, extortion is bad even if the victim is a prisoner is a pretty damning indictment on the legal system and the public’s views towards convicts.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Upstream (profile) says:

Prisons — for better or worse — are a public service.

This is what they should be, a public service to keep dangerous people from being able to further harm the rest of society. But to the law enforcement / prison / industrial complex they are a foundational block of the profit pyramid.

We should really try to emulate this.

But with the huge profit margins and the political power of the cops receiving the kickbacks driving significant resistance to simply elimating phone call extortion, don’t expect foundational change anytime soon.

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