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Paying for prison calls. Going from one extreme to another?

Four years ago this month, inmate Matthew Abraham learned he had a call from his mom. She was calling from a hospital where her own mom, Matthew’s grandmother, was on life-support machinery after suffering a major stroke. The plug was being pulled. His mom wanted Matthew to be connected with family for these last moments.

Then the automated voice from the Securus Technologies vendor interrupted. The call would end in one minute. Matthew’s mother had not updated the prepaid account — about $5 for every 15 minutes. The call ended abruptly. He would not speak to his mother again, ever. She died 10 days later of her own medical problems, having never added to the phone account.

Matthew Abraham’s story was related to the Judiciary Committee last March by Jeannia Fu, a community organizer with the Connecticut Bail Fund, during a hearing on whether the state should end the practice of making prisoners, through their families and friends, pay for phone calls.

Like many inmates, Abraham — housed at the Cheshire Correctional Institution — is imprisoned for doing something rash, stupid, and violent when young. Raised in New Haven, Abraham was 18 when in 2001 a dispute among a group of teens over a cellphone turned ugly. Abraham’s friend was struck with a bat, and he retaliated with a gun, killing the other teen. Convicted of manslaughter and illegal gun possession, he is scheduled for release in 2028.

“We need to think seriously about how companies such as Securus profit from the pain, misery and despair of our communities. We have to remove the dollar signs from our eyes and begin to see the humanity of those who have been hurt most by the prison-industrial complex,” Abraham stated in submitted testimony.

The General Assembly ultimately did pass, and Gov. Ned Lamont has signed, a new law that makes Connecticut the first state that will not assess any fees for prison calls, which are all recorded and can be monitored live, adding to their expense. The change goes into effect in October 2022. It had significant bipartisan support.

Proponents, which include correction’s Commissioner Angel Quiros, contend the free-call policy is more humane, equitable — the Connecticut inmate population is disproportionately made up of minorities and people of lower incomes — and that making it easier for inmates to keep in contact with families improves the chances of a successful re-entry into society after release.

Critics say it is unfair to burden law-abiding taxpayers with the obligation. Paying for food, heat and shelter for prisoners is different, because they are necessities. Phone calls are not, goes the argument.

The change will be costly. The paid phone system was lucrative for the state, which made a 68% commission. The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the state will lose between $4.5 million and $5.5 million in revenue annually, beginning in fiscal-year 2023, while spending between $3.5 million to $4.5 million to compensate the vendor, Securus Technologies. That means the change will cost, in lost revenue and added expense, between $8 million to $10 million a year.

Karen Martucci, a department spokesperson, said prison officials expect calls will increase significantly and phones will have to be added. Connecticut has about 9,000 inmates, a number that has been steadily declining for a decade.

The logic behind the change makes sense. It must be a terrible burden on many of these families, who didn’t commit the crimes, to come up with money for the phone calls. They must face a lot of guilt and anxiety when they can’t. And it makes sense that a prisoner who is more able to keep in touch with his or her children and other family members is a prisoner more likely to successfully reintegrate with that family and to avoid the crime that returns someone to prison.

But did it have to be all or nothing? Connecticut went from one extreme to another, from a state that was among the highest in charging for calls and making money off them to one that will not charge at all.

Martucci said inmates in good standing can place up to six calls a day for 15 minutes each, a total of 90 minutes. I was surprised by the number. To me, it sounds high. Perhaps next year the legislature could adjust the law to allow up to 45 minutes in free calls daily, with the prisoners — by way of families — able to buy more time, up to the 90-minute limit?

That would still allow inmates to keep in better communication with families, while controlling the cost of the change.

In any event, if greater access to family phone calls reduces recidivism, the investment could prove well worth it. Starting in 2022, the change should be assessed to see if it is producing such positive results.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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