On February 21st — this Friday — the Connecticut State Senate will introduce a bill that would make phone calls free for currently incarcerated people. As of now, people in prison must pay in order to reach out to the outside world. If the bill passes, Connecticut will become the first state in the United States to provide free telecommunication services for those in prison.
The Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) has been working with prison reform organizations and directly affected communities to draw as much attention to the Connecticut effort as possible. And now, we want to get a final petition of signatures that will be presented to the Senate to express community support.
Connecticut currently ranks 49th out of 50 states in phone call affordability from prison at a rate of about $4.87 for 15 minutes. According to TIME Magazine, in 2018 alone, prisoners paid $13.2 million in total phone call fees. That’s $13.2 million transferred from the state’s most vulnerable to some of its most powerful: a prison telecommunication company — Securus — and the Connecticut government.
For these two institutions, charging incarcerated people’s calls by the minute is a way of raising large sums of revenue from thousands of small transactions. This in turn acts as a sin tax — a tax usually for products considered harmful — on prisoners’ communication. But while sin taxes are meant to discourage behavior, free communication between incarcerated people and the rest of the world is one of the most important prison reforms we can enact.
Why? There are four primary reasons: prisoner’s health, prison safety, family health and lowered recidivism rates.
First, phone calls can improve incarcerated people’s well-being. Tracie Bernardi, a prison reform activist in Connecticut and formerly incarcerated woman, told the chair of the Connecticut NAACP Shelby Henderson-Griffiths that “if [she] had no phone calls [she] would have killed [herself],” adding that her mother “had to pay to keep [her] alive.” Phone calls can be the only line of communication that an incarcerated person has to the outside world. To deny incarcerated people the right to communicate with their loved ones is to deny them any life outside of a prison.
Second, a phone call can interrupt dangerous dynamics that thrive in environments that are isolated from the rest of the society. It can be a lifeline. The more communication prisoners have, the more responsive to abuse the rest of the world can be — whether that be family, friends, employers or lawyers.
Third, prison communication can make an incredible difference for the families of incarcerated people. Incarceration causes family distress, so the opportunity to maintain contact with loved ones should be a basic right. Often, those in prison come from low-income and minority households, and high phone call rates pose a serious financial burden.
Diane Lewis, a journalist for the New Haven Register, summarized the shared experiences of many families that she interviewed, who were stuck “figuring out which bills to pay, which nights [to] skip dinner and which doctors’ visits to cancel so that [they could] afford to speak to [their] children, [their] siblings, [their] parents.” For many Connecticut families, the choice comes down to going another day without hearing their family member’s voice or without some other basic necessity.
Fourth, communication with the outside world while in prison can potentially lower recidivism rates. Allowing prisoners to remain connected to life outside prison can help them prepare for reintegration.
Ultimately, the price of phone calls in Connecticut serves as a regressive tax, extracting a greater percentage of income from poorer families. Low income households, who already contend with the costs of public defenders, fines and court fees must also pay to stay connected to their loved ones.
Governor Ned Lamont has already agreed to put aside $5.5 million to account for part of the revenue the state would lose by making phone calls free, but I think it’s also worth asking why Connecticut generates revenue from some of its most vulnerable citizens in the first place.
If you want to help make prison phone calls free in Connecticut, write a letter to Connecticut representatives, spread the word on social media platforms, sign YUPP’s petition or join our organization next semester. We believe in the work we are doing and hope you’ll be a part of it.
MICHAELA MARKELS is a first year in Grace Hopper College. She is a member of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, YUPP. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org