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EDITORIAL: Inmate phone call costs a burden to families

Salem News - 5/3/2023

May 3—Families of the incarcerated in Massachusetts have two phone bills.

The first is for the cell phone almost every person has, with a cost of $100 or so. The second is for the cost of calls to their incarcerated relative, and that bill can often reach $400 or $500 or more.

That puts a tremendous burden on families already at risk, and threatens to sever the ties between an incarcerated individual and their loved ones, complicating the reentry into public life and increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

There's no good reason for calls to and from incarcerated individuals to be so expensive and so oppressive for families that are often struggling with other bills. One in three families with incarcerated relatives nationwide went into debt to pay for such calls.

Fortunately, momentum is building toward a change in Massachusetts. What form those changes will take, however, is still to be worked out.

A provision in the House version of next year's $56.2 billion budget would require the state Department of Correction and county sheriffs to provide free phone calls to prisoners, with no cap on the number of minutes or calls.

Gov. Maura Healey's proposed budget, meanwhile, would offer free calls, with a cap at 1,000 minutes a month. Healey's plan, however, does not include county jails.

The state Senate has yet to weigh in on the issue. Last year, the Legislature approved a plan that would have offered free calls, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker. Lawmakers chose to let Baker's veto stand.

Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger has concerns.

"If they're going to authorize free phone calls, they're going to have to reimburse us for the cost of the services," Coppinger told Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade. Coppinger said it costs about $2.7 million a year to offer phone calls at the Middleton Jail. Unlimited calls would surely drive costs higher, he said.

Coppinger also noted the proposal comes at a time when lawmakers — specifically the House — are proposing sheriff budgets that fall below what the governor is recommending.

He's right on one level. The cost of free calls needs to be reflected in whatever budget makes its way to the governor's desk. But that is solvable, and no reason not to move ahead. What's more, the Legislature approved $20 million for free calls last year, before Baker vetoed the measure. That money is still available.

Requiring free calls would also free sheriffs and other correctional facilities from charges of abuse — jacking up the cost of calls to pad their budgets and boost the profits of the small handful of private companies that contract to provide inmate calls.

"At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, a few companies are charging millions of consumers — the families of people in prison — outlandish prices to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones," the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative wrote in its report, "State of Phone Justice 2022."

"The cost of everyday communication is arguably the worst price-gouging that people and their loved ones face," the report continues.

It notes that while some jails nationwide have negotiated rates as low as 1 or 2 cents per minute, "the vast majority of jails charge 10 times that amount or more." That doesn't count the various service fees larded into the bottom line.

The state Department of Correction charges 12 to 14 cents per minute for calls. Some sheriffs have charged as much as 40 cents a minute, according to advocates.

That doesn't just punish inmates — it punishes their families. The time for reform is here.


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