One in 50 New Haven residents is behind bars, a sobering statistic in a city with a crime rate that has been cut in half since 1990.
With countless families left in the lurch, groups like the community-based People Against Injustice and Yale’s Students Legal Action Movement are now accusing the state of burdening prisoners’ families with exorbitant bail rates and increasingly high phone bills for collect calls out of prison.
Anita Seth GRD ’05, who is active in SLAM and People Against Injustice, said families are paying hundreds each month in phone bills because of the state’s exclusive contract with MCI for its prison phone system. She added that a conflict of interest exists because the state receives 45 percent of MCI’s profits from the contract.
Seth said state representatives recently tried to push through legislation that would prohibit the state from earning profits from phone contracts but the effort fell short.
But Nuala Forde, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Information Technology, said that though the collect call rates are high, the prices paid by inmates’ families are the same as for everyone else in the state. She added that MCI was chosen for the security of its phone system, which closely monitors inmates’ calls.
“The collect calls are expensive. If we did not have this system in place — inmates would have no phone system to contact their families,” Forde said.
The national trend, she said, has been an increase in phone bills, but the state is not responsible for setting those prices. Its primary job with correctional facilities is to administer whichever phone company contract the state selects.
Forde said the state has caps on collect call rates for inmates. The cost cannot exceed what SNET would charge for in-state calls and what AT&T would charge for interstate calls.
The contract with MCI expired last December and the state decided to renew the contract for another year while the Department of Information Technology currently reviews proposals submitted by different phone companies.
People Against Injustice, formed in 1996, was first a support group for prisoners’ families before it evolved into a political advocacy group. The national prison reform group Critical Resistance also has a local chapter in New Haven.
The number of incarcerated Connecticut residents has increased 85 percent since 1990. The state’s 18 correctional facilities and an additional location in Virginia house 17,999 inmates as of January this year. The New Haven Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue houses 677 inmates.
Stephen Osserman, who is active in SLAM, said the group is planning to help People Against Injustice in their efforts to gather statistics at bail hearings. He said that a student presence at the hearings may sway judges to be more reasonable.
SLAM is now hosting the New Haven Criminal Justice Discussion Series. “Bail/Bond and the Injustices of the Court System” was the topic at the series’ most recent installment on Feb. 18.