Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill on Wednesday that makes phone calls from prisons free for incarcerated people and their loved ones. Connecticut is the first state to do so.
Senate Bill 972 makes all communication in state prisons and youth detention facilities free, prohibits the state from collecting revenue from communication services, and ensures that in-person visits will not be replaced with video calls.
The bill passed the Connecticut legislature with bipartisan support on June 3.
“Connecticut has now set an example for the rest of the country, and we’re on the right side of history,” said State Rep. Josh Elliott, who sponsored the legislation. “Corporations can no longer be allowed to exploit the love between incarcerated people and their families—not in our state, not on our watch.”
For years, private phone companies have charged exorbitant rates to families of incarcerated people for talking to their loved ones in prison. Rates are set by contracts between these companies and state and local governments, who often receive “commissions” or kickbacks for each jail or prison. As a result, family members in some states are paying exorbitant rates for in-state calls.
Connecticut families were paying nearly $5 for a 15-minute phone call through a prepaid account—among the highest rates in the country, NPR reports.
And the state was making a 68% commission on in-state calls—more than $7 million in 2019—through its contract with Securus Technologies, one of the nation’s largest prison phone providers.
Researchers have outlined long-term benefits to maintaining contact with family during incarceration. Staying connected reduces the likelihood that those released will reoffend and is correlated with lower drug use and higher rates of employment after release.
It’s especially important for children to stay in touch when a parent is incarcerated. “Parent-child separation causes toxic stress and PTSD-like symptoms in children, while maintaining contact reduces the most harmful effects of trauma associated with parental separation,” said Aileen Keays, Project Manager at CT Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative.
Families rely on phone calls to keep in touch because many cannot afford to travel the often long distances to visit their loved ones in person. Without limits on the rates and extra fees prison phone companies can charge, the cost of staying in touch is too high for many families to afford.
“Incarcerated individuals and their families shouldn’t be burdened by exorbitant costs to simply keep in contact with each other. We cannot understate the importance of staying connected to family. We know that incarcerated individuals can maintain the vital connections that will ease their transition back to society,” House Majority Leader Jason Rojas said in a statement. “This bill corrects a regressive policy that senselessly indebts families and turns the revolving door of recidivism. As our state focuses on criminal justice reform, it could not be any more timely.”
Advocates, people of faith, and relatives of incarcerated people persuaded the FCC to lower the cost of prison phone calls in 2013, but the private corporations that profit from charging for phone calls challenged the new regulations in court. In 2017, after the Trump Administration appointed a new FCC chairman, the FCC reversed its position.
Some states have moved to reduce the cost of phone calls for people in prison, but Connecticut is the first to eliminate the cost altogether.