As the state legislature begins to consider a proposal to make phone calls free in jail, state sheriffs say they’re not opposed to the idea – but it will cost more than the $20 million dollars currently under discussion to reimburse the prison system for lost revenue. .
Rep. Chynah Tyler’s free phone calls legislation has been incorporated into the House budget proposal for fiscal year 2023, which would require jails and jails to give prisoners free phone calls. This would allow sheriffs, the Department of Correction and the Department of Youth Services to be reimbursed from a $20 million public fund to make up the shortfall.
Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem is proposing a similar arrangement in the Senate. “Free phone calls will help maintain strong family ties, which studies have shown reduces recidivism,” Creem said. “The current cost of telephone calls is exorbitant and much higher than necessary, largely due to the commissions that are returned to institutions by the service provider.”
Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi told GBH News he supports the bill in principle, but the $20 million figure is expected to rise, even though it is an “effort in good faith” to compensate for lost commissions on phone calls that pay for prisoner services. .
“I need $1,000,000 from the Legislature to recoup the loss I would have in commissions that accrue immediately to the men and women involved in justice,” he said. “And I’m a county.”
But Cocchi said conversations with the legislature had been “positive” and “fruitful.”
“With the work we have done with the House and Senate to educate them on where these funds are going, [I hope it] would lead us to bring that total up from $20 million to a necessary and appropriate amount,” Cocchi said.
Sheriff’s offices have implemented free call time and reduced rates in recent years. Cocchi launched two free hours of weekly phone time at the start of the pandemic, which remains in effect. Beyond that, the county charges 12 cents per minute, the lowest rate of any county in the state.
The fee supports programs like the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority bus from downtown Springfield to Ludlow Jail, which costs $100,000 a year. The line allows families to visit their incarcerated loved ones if they cannot afford transportation.
Funds also go towards GED testing, culinary training, mental health providers and release planning. The county collected more than $679,100 in telephone commissions last year, lower than previous years due to free calls.
The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department received more than $620,000 in calls from inmates at their facilities last year. More than half a million went to “programming”, and $113,383 was spent on paid labor for prisoners, according to a spokesperson.
Sheriff Steven Tompkins said the funds are being used to keep phone systems running. The calls are important for keeping prisoners in touch with their families, he said, and for monitoring.
“We gather a fair amount of information from phone calls, frankly,” he said.
Tompkins, who is also president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association, said phone calls are not a cash cow for prisons.
“I don’t want to be flippant with you, but there are people who have spoken to us about how they think this is a profit center. It’s not a profit center,” he said.
“Money from phone calls is used to maintain the surveillance systems used by correctional facilities and for inmate programming,” Tompkins added. “I just don’t think $20 million covers all of this for 14 county sheriffs, DOC and DYS.”
He and other sheriffs did not give an exact amount the legislature might offer.
In 2021, the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association announced that all county jails would move to charging a maximum of 14 cents per minute, or $2.10 for a 15-minute phone call.
The Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office is already planning to waive commission on phone calls as the county transitions to a new tablet-based system, according to spokesman Garrett Nichols. Currently, the county charges 14 cents per minute, up from 16 to 25 cents per minute in 2020. In 2021, the county received $125,093 in commissions on calls.
Other counties provided limited information or did not respond to requests from GBH News. Most have a rate of 14 cents per minute and all offer 10 free minutes per week.
The charges are paid by those who receive phone calls, not the inmates who make them, which can create a burden on families who communicate with loved ones behind bars. Erika Algarin pays more than $300 a month to communicate with her husband, who is incarcerated in Essex County Jail. He speaks to his two children, aged 3 and 10. “He’s such a big part of their schedule,” she said.
The day she spoke to GBH News, Algarin had spoken to her husband for 47 minutes, costing over $7. She said fares were more expensive at the Suffolk County House of Corrections, where he was originally incarcerated. She is also charged $3 each time she adds funds to her phone account.
Algarin said the family had “reduced” the calls, but it was difficult when the children wanted to talk often.
“It’s usually good morning and good evening because we’re trying to shorten the time a bit. My daughter does her homework with him at night,” Algarin said.
She has three jobs, including as a full-time social worker and works at an addiction center on the weekends, and just wants to see relief from the phone bills. “Money goes fast,” she said.
Algarin said the deal to cut charges to 14 cents a minute wasn’t good enough, “especially if they can’t fix phone connections and poor service performance.” She described dropped calls where she is still paying for dead airtime minutes. “You can’t hear half the conversation.”
Nor did lawmakers think that lowering rates was enough.
Even with the new rates, Massachusetts residents still spend $10.5 million talking to prisoners each year, according to an analysis sent to Creem and Tyler by advocacy group Worth Rises.
The House version of the legislation proposes the creation of a communications access trust with $20 million in seed funding to cover lost revenue for sheriffs and the DOC, if they submit service receipts .
The bill would also prohibit sheriffs and the Department of Correction from limiting in-person visits or collecting commissions on calls.
“What we don’t want to see is the cost of calls being eliminated, and sheriffs and corrections officers being able to limit access to calls and ration those calls,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners. ‘Legal Services, which advocated for toll-free calls.
Hampden County Sheriff Cocchi believes appeals will still need to be restricted.
“If we had unlimited telephone calls, we would have tension in the accommodation. We would have fights because people would occupy them and take control of them,” he said.
Cocchi said he would rather get programming help for the 87% of Hampden County prisoners with substance abuse issues or the 56% with mental health issues than sit them on the phone to talk to family. .
Differences between House and Senate bills, including eliminating the collection of commissions or increasing this $20 million reserve, will be negotiated in conference commissions.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr tabled an amendment proposing a streamlined rate-setting process after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson had the power to levy revenue from prison phone charges, ending a four-year legal dispute.
Jail calls have generated a significant source of income for some sheriffs in previous years. Between 2011 and 2013, Hodgson’s office had a contract with telephone service provider Securus that paid the company more than $200,000 a year for technology and on-site administrators, as well as 48% commission on calls. This contract still generated $1.17 million in revenue for the sheriff’s office.
In 2015, the sheriff’s office signed a new four-year contract with Securus, which eliminated commissions and provided Hodgson’s office with a one-time payment of $820,000. This contact has been extended until Bristol County adopts the 14 cent per minute charge in 2021.
The court’s decision upholding the charges is “absolutely a win for taxpayers,” Hodgson told GBH News via email. “As Sheriff of Bristol County, I have always believed that one of my most fundamental responsibilities was to minimize the burden on ratepayers for the rising costs of prison operations.”
Hodgson’s office told GBH News the money was used for education, job training, substance abuse and the job training program, and also funded the IT infrastructure of the current telephone system.