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Bill To Make Connecticut First State With Free Prison Phone Calls Heads To Governor

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A bill that would make Connecticut the first state in the nation to provide free prison phone calls is now headed to the governor's desk. Supporters say the cost of staying connected is just too high for inmates and their families and that the benefit of maintaining close bonds lasts longer than a prison sentence. Connecticut Public Radio's Lori Mack has this report.

LORI MACK, BYLINE: Telephone calls were a lifeline for Hartford resident Diane Lewis when her son was incarcerated.

DIANE LEWIS: I made these phone calls priority over everything, before any bill in this house.

MACK: But affording those calls was a struggle.

LEWIS: He didn't know there were times that I talked to him with no lights on in the house 'cause the lights went off. He didn't ever know that.

MACK: Lewis and other Connecticut families paid nearly $5 for a 15-minute call, among the highest rates in the country. Connecticut makes a 68% commission on in-state prison calls through its contract with phone vendor Securus Technologies, one of the nation's largest prison phone vendors. In 2019, the state took in about $7 million.

JOSH ELLIOTT: And I think that now people agree that we should be fixing this problem.

MACK: State Representative Josh Elliott, a Democrat, has been trying to make the calls free for two years. He thinks that staying connected to family is a key part of rehabilitation.

ELLIOTT: Do we want them to be successful, or are we just looking to punish people? And I would offer that we should be looking to rehabilitate people and provide them with as many resources as we possibly can to ensure their success.

DAN CHAMPAGNE: If the person arrested wants to avoid all this, don't commit the crime.

MACK: Republican State Senator Dan Champagne is a former police officer. Though the bill has bipartisan support, he wants the phone charges to stay. Up to now, revenue from the calls has paid for criminal justice programs, probation officer positions and other related expenses. Some of those costs could be offset when the state closes its only supermax prison this summer. Champagne remains unmoved.

CHAMPAGNE: The taxpayers should not be saddled with this cost in addition to all the other costs that they have been saddled with because somebody decided to violate the law.

MACK: But there may be consequences for communities if people who are incarcerated can't afford to keep in touch with family members. Research shows the benefits are long-lasting. Dr. John Hart is with the Vera Institute of Justice.

JOHN HART: Vera has found that there is a correlation with lower drug use, there is a greater likelihood of finding jobs, there's less run-ins with the laws when people are maintaining these relationships.

MACK: Hart says the power of the human voice can carry people a long way. Jewu Richardson from New Haven agrees. He says when he served time, the prohibitive cost turned the daily call to his kids to a weekly call and dwindled from there.

JEWU RICHARDSON: I'm still suffering from the trauma of that now. A lot of this trauma is unspoken trauma. People don't see it every day. And if you walk by me or walk by my kids, you won't see this. But these are, like, monumental times that I wasn't able to be there, at least through the phone.

MACK: Connecticut may be the first state to eliminate the fees, but similar policies have passed in New York City, San Francisco and San Diego. If the governor signs the bill, prison calls are projected to be free in Connecticut by October 1, 2022. For NPR News, I'm Lori Mack in Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.