The fight for free prison calls continues

Read Ashley’s previous report on this topic here

Last spring, the Massachusetts House and Senate introduced bills to end abusive telecommunications charges in state jails and jails, making phone and video calls free for incarcerated people. For family members, many of whom get into debt to pay for the cost of appeals and visits in prison – the legislation promises much-needed relief. But as the conference committee hammers out the final details of the FY23 budget, advocates and families fear a free-calling policy could lead to reduced phone access if lawmakers do not include explicit language guaranteeing prisoners a minimum daily call time.

“Without guaranteed minimum”, the Coalition Keeping Families Connected written in a June 17 letter to the conference budget committee, “ironically, many incarcerated people could end up with less contact with loved ones than they currently have – undermining the policy’s goal of keeping families connected” . Currently, calls are only limited by a person’s ability to pay.

The Coalition’s concerns stem from statements by Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi made to a WGBH reporter in May that free calls should be limited to avoid “tension in housing”. The Massachusetts Sheriffs Association reiterated this view in a letter dated June 7 to the budget conference committee, warning that, with no limits on the length and number of calls, there will be “strong arming of the most vulnerable inmates to control the phones,” facilities will struggle “to accommodate necessary telephone extensions”, and inmates will be less inclined to participate in “education and programming”,

But these claims are not supported by evidence from places where free calls have already been implemented.

In San Francisco, jail calls have been free with no overtime restrictions since 2020, and administrators say they’ve seen fewer phone-related disputes. “The [policy] had a calming effect,” said Kevin Fischer-Paulson, chief warden for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. “The number of fights in prison, especially over the phone, has decreased significantly.” Under the old system, he said, people with no money in their accounts “regularly armed” those with money to extract their ID numbers.

By creating phone lists outside of scheduled hours, prisons ensure that phone access is distributed fairly based on the number of individuals in a unit, the number of phones, and the total time available. The county saw a 41% increase in call volume, with individuals spending 81% more time communicating with family than in previous years. “There’s less tension now,” Fischer-Paulson said, “because if you’re worried about your case and you’ve at least talked about it with your mom, wife, brother, or girlfriend, you share some of your pain.”

New York City made all jail calls free in 2019, and according to Bill Heinzen, spokesman for the city’s board of corrections, the policy hasn’t increased phone-related disputes. “Providing free phone service to those in police custody is a humane and positive way to connect those in police custody with their families and communities,” Heizen told the newspaper. Governing. “Failing to provide free calls, on the other hand, can lead to isolation, jealousy and abuse of access to phone calls, all of which put inmates and prison staff at risk.”

A spokesperson for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which implemented toll-free calls in jail in July 2021, said, in an email response, “‘Toll-free communications’ naturally resulted in a increase in the total number of phone calls, minutes of use, and therefore associated costs, but there were few associated problems otherwise.

Jurisdictions that have eliminated telephone charges have also found reasonable ways to deal with increased call volume. Connecticut, where free calls went into effect at all facilities in the state on July 1, made tablets — previously used only for email and media and distributed free of charge — available for phone calls. “That’s how we avoided potential competition over phone access now that calls are free,” said Andrius Banevicius, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department renegotiated its contract with telecommunications provider Viapath (formerly GTL) based on a fixed price per phone line rather than the old call-per-minute rate; as a result, Fisher-Paulson said, the company was prompted to provide additional phones, which are now built into the units on carts.

In none of these locations did the free calls interfere with inmates’ willingness to participate in educational or rehabilitation programs, since the phone calls are only available during “recess” and other unscheduled times of the day. daytime.

Massachusetts advocates are calling on lawmakers to include a minimum guarantee of 120 minutes a day, if not unlimited calls, in the final draft budget. “We don’t want anyone to have less phone access because of this policy than they do today,” said Rachel Roth, a member of the Keeping Families Connected Coalition. “Today people can use phones, as much as they can afford, during times when they have no programming or other obligations. We want to raise the floor so everyone can have the same access to his loved ones, not just those who can afford it.”

Although 120 minutes may seem high, the modeling data produced by the organization The value increases shows that in jurisdictions where calls are free, people use an average of only 30 minutes per day. This average includes people who may make no calls on any given day and those who may make multiple calls totaling more than 30 minutes. “Phone usage varies from person to person and from day to day,” said Bianca Tylek, CEO of Worth Rises. “Someone who does not use the phone often, may have an emergency one day like the death of a loved one. No one should be prevented from communicating with their family as often as possible, neither by cost nor by Politics. “

Thomasina Baker, a patient care coordinator at Boston Medical Center whose daughter, Kimya Foust, was incarcerated at MCI Framingham for 15 years, recalled many situations where she needed more than 20 minutes of call time to help her daughter going through a crisis. At one point, Foust was taken out of prison for emergency surgery. “For 15 days we had no idea where she was,” Baker said. “Prison officials didn’t tell us anything.” When Foust finally called, she was weak and groggy. As she struggled to explain what had happened, the call was cut off in the middle. She couldn’t call back until the next morning. “I was left in a state of anxiety,” Baker said. “What do I do? If I call the jail, they won’t tell me. I needed more time with Kim.

Often, Foust just needed to process the emotions aroused by an intense therapy session or a conflict in his unit. “It could take a bunch of calls to get through,” Baker said. Some of Foust’s friends, who had no family to talk to, also leaned on Baker for support. “Prison creates a lot of anxiety for these girls. If prisons reduce appeal time, I can’t imagine the suffering it will cause.

Although Massachusetts sheriffs paid reluctanlty to the importance of the family tie in rehabilitation, they have long resisted the idea of ​​eliminating user telephone charges and the large commissions they receive from telecommunications providers. As previously stated heresheriffs repeated the refrain that their loss of phone revenue would mean cuts to valuable “inmate programs.”

Yet lawmakers have made it clear that the programs are part of the normal correctional budget and should not be funded by a tax on families. “If we decide to have free calls,” Rep. Michael Day told this reporter in April, “then we understand that comes with a cost that we will offset through the appropriations process.”

On April 6, lawmakers met with representatives of the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and the Department of Corrections to determine the cost of implementing a toll-free policy in all state prisons, jails county and reformatories. According to Bianca Tylek, who attended the meeting, Sen. Will Brownsberger calculated the numbers during the call. “Everyone was okay with $9.3 million,” Tylek said. The total includes the cost of providing telephone service, including monitoring technology, and compensation for lost commissions.

Based on that sum, the House bill proposes the creation of a $20 million communications access trust, to cover service costs and lost revenue for sheriffs and the DOC. Unspent amounts would be carried over to the following year. As a reimbursement fund, the House proposal would require a level of transparency from the DOC and sheriffs that currently does not exist.

Yet despite agreeing to the $9.3 million figure at the April 6 meeting, Sheriff Cocchi said a month later WGBH Journalist Sarah Betancourt that “$20 million figure should go up” to cover sheriffs’ losses.

“Sheriff Cocchi’s recent claims are baffling given the data provided by sheriffs and his own prior comments that support a much lower budget rating,” Tylek said. “His sudden reversal looks like an attempt to get more funding at a time when sheriff funding is coming under greater scrutiny.”

Recognizing that sheriffs and the DOC have grown accustomed to operate with little or no supervisionadvocates don’t want to leave anything in the toll-free policy open to interpretation.

“People need free, fully funded, guaranteed calls with at least the same access to phones they have today,” Roth said. “We saw that the DOC resisted full implementation the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018, and that sheriffs have resisted making calls free, so the language coming out of the budget committee must be ironclad.

“We don’t want there to be any ambiguity or wiggle room when it comes to this policy that people have been waiting for for so many years,” she said.

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