Prison Phone Calls

A bill in the Legislature would make Massachusetts the second state to provide free phone calls for people who are incarcerated.

Massachusetts families spend about $25 million each year on phone calls to incarcerated relatives, a nonprofit advocacy group says.

That number comes from Worth Rises, which made the estimate using 2018 data, said Michél Legendre, its campaigns director.

Worth Rises, based in New York, counts itself as part of a growing movement to make those calls free. That movement scored a victory in June, when Connecticut passed legislation to allow incarcerated people at least 90 minutes of free phone calls per day.

In Massachusetts, the Building Up People Not Prisons coalition is leading the push for a bill that would make phone, video and other electronic communication free for people incarcerated in the state. That coalition is headed by Families for Justice as Healing, a Boston-based group led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, as well as women whose loved ones have been incarcerated.

Supporters are looking for a Tuesday legislative hearing to move the needle on that bill. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary will hold a virtual hearing for a slate of bills that includes H.1900, which was sponsored by state Rep. Chynah Tyler, D-Boston.

“Right now, families are footing the bill for communication with their incarcerated loved ones,” Legendre said. “Making phone calls free will increase people’s connection and make it so that they can be connected to the support structures that they need for more smooth reentry. This is really an issue of justice, connected families and healthier communities.”

Those interested in testifying must fill out a form at tinyurl.com/575dubhr by 5 p.m. Monday.

“Whenever there’s a private vendor involved in government services, I’m suspicious of it,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who co-sponsored the bill. “I think that system is a bad one, and I think people should have access to be able to talk to their families. It’s really compelling when you listen to stories of incarcerated people and the people who love them.”

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, co-sponsored a similar bill in the Senate.

Amid growing pressure, Massachusetts sheriffs said in June that they reached an agreement to provide all incarcerated people at least 10 minutes of free phone calls each week, and to charge no more than 14 cents per minute afterward. They said the new policy would go into effect no later than Aug. 1.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a Northampton-based research group, said in a March report that the cost of a 15-minute phone call ranged from $1.80 to $4.50 for people incarcerated in Massachusetts. For Berkshire County, it put the price at $3.15 for in-state and $3.75 for out-of-state calls.

At the 14-cent-per-minute rate, an incarcerated person who already has used their free minutes would be charged $2.10 for a 15-minute phone call.

“A lot of parental incarceration has grown, and our children suffer,” said Leslie Credle, founder and executive director of Justice 4 Housing and a founding member of the Building Up People Not Prisons coalition. “They need to be connected to us because a lot of times, if you don’t have that connection with a parent while you’re incarcerated, our children lash out. That one phone call sometimes is a matter of sanity.”

The $1.4 billion prison telecommunications industry is dominated by two companies, Securus and Global Tel Link, which control more than 70 percent of the market. Securus is the provider for all Massachusetts counties except Hampden and Hampshire, the Prison Policy Initiative report said.

About $7 million in “kickbacks” from corporate contracts go into correctional budgets, the Worth Rises executive director said in 2019.

“They’re profiting off of communities of color whose loved ones are incarcerated through commissary, phone calls and labor,” Credle said. “A lot of times you have families who have to choose: Do I keep my lights on, or do I talk to my parent who is incarcerated?”

Black people in Massachusetts are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people, the Prison Policy Initiative said in an analysis of 2010 census data.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.