Daily Camera (Boulder)

$4 million investment

Advocates say change, which would cost state $4M a year, would keep incarcerat­ed people better connected to families

- By Elise Schmelzer eschmelzer@denverpost.com

Norman Vasquez often has to choose between buying soap or calling his family while serving time at Colorado’s Arkansas Valley Correction­al Facility.

He’s struggled to maintain relationsh­ips with his children while serving a 35year sentence. Losing those connection­s has been the most difficult part of his incarcerat­ion, he said.

“I never thought I would lose the most important relationsh­ips in my life due to the fact that I cannot afford to call my children every day,” he said.

Vasquez, whose written statement was read aloud by an advocate, was one of 15 people who urged Colorado lawmakers this week to pass a bill that would make phone calls free to people incarcerat­ed in state prisons and their families.

The approximat­ely 17,000 people incarcerat­ed in the Colorado Department of Correction­s pay 8 cents a minute for phone calls — or $4.80 for an hour, according to data collected by the state. Last year, people in the Department of Correction­s and their families paid $7.7 million to talk on the phone, state data shows.

Requiring incarcerat­ed people to pay for phone calls breaks their connection with their families — the exact connection that studies say helps people succeed after they leave prison, proponents of the bill said. The lack of free calls places a financial burden on imprisoned peoples’ families — many of which are living in poverty — and keeps incarcerat­ed people from connecting to resources outside of the prison walls that can help them re-enter society, they said.

“Their kids and their spouses will be more connected to them — they’ll be more likely to succeed when they leave,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat sponsoring the bill,

HB23-1133. “That means we have healthier communitie­s, more public safety and less people in prison.”

The bill is part of a wave of legislatio­n across the country to provide free phone calls to incarcerat­ed people and regulate the private companies that dominate the prison communicat­ions industry.

People who maintain family relationsh­ips are more likely to succeed after release and avoid a new criminal charge. The state saves money when it imprisons fewer people, Amabile said.

Vasquez knows he will need his family when he is released.

“Who do I turn to when it’s time to go home?” he asked.

Eight cents a minute may not seem like a lot, but it adds up over years of incarcerat­ion, said Rep. Mandy Lindsay, one of the bill sponsors. A daily 15-minute phone call adds up to $438 a year. Other types of communicat­ion like video calls and emails cost money, too. Incarcerat­ed people have no ability to make a living wage and their loved ones are often strapped for cash.

Lindsay, an Arapahoe County Democrat, has experience­d this firsthand — her brother-in-law is incarcerat­ed.

“It became very quickly apparent how cumbersome, how expensive, how burdensome it becomes,” she said.

The bill would require the Department of Correction­s to take on the costs of phone calls and allows the state to pay for video chats and emails as well. The change would cost the state approximat­ely $4 million a year, which includes also paying for video calls and emails, according to the fiscal note.

The fiscal note assumes the Department of Correction­s will finalize a new contract with a lower per-minute fee of 2 cents a minute and estimates that, on average, incarcerat­ed people spend about 20 minutes a day on the phone.

Virginia-based Viapath — previously known as Global Tel Link or GTL — provides phone and video call services to people in the Department of Correction­s at no cost to the state and instead pays the state to operate in the prisons. Under the current contract, Viapath keeps all the revenue from inmate calls and pays $800,000 a year to the state in a “cost recovery fee” to cover the salaries of staff members who work on the phone systems, according to the contract.

The bill would ban the Department of Correction­s from receiving money from phone service providers for the right to operate in the system.

The phone technology provided by Viapath allows the department to monitor and record calls and manage whom incarcerat­ed people talk to. The company also provides software that scans recorded phone calls for keywords.

“The added security features are what the vendors provide and are the reason we have these contracts. It would be contrary to public safety to simply plug in phones and open them up for use,” Department of Correction­s spokeswoma­n Annie Skinner said in an email.

The Department of Correction­s does not oppose the bill, Amabile said.

Having to pay for phone calls also can keep people who are eligible for parole from leaving prison, said Jamie Ray with Second Chance Center, an Aurora nonprofit that helps people leaving prison. People need a place to live before they can be released on parole and need to make phone calls to set up that living situation.

Phone calls with his family reminded George Davis of who he was while he served his years in the Department of Correction­s. The phone calls gave him hope, sanity and a desire to do better. They saved his life, he told lawmakters at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.

“A ‘we miss you’ can increase your sense of selfworth,” he said. “Hearing the words ‘I love you’ can invoke a will beyond our knowing to keep striving. It is through those connection­s that lives are changed.” states are considerin­g similar changes, said Bianca Tylek of Worth Rises, a nonprofit advocacy organizati­on that advocates for free phone calls nationwide.

Several jurisdicti­ons are switching to a cheaper method of paying per phone line instead of paying per minute, she said.

“In 2023, we shouldn’t be talking about a per-minute rate for phone calls — that’s absurd,” she said.

Even under the per-minute model, other states are paying cheaper rates than Colorado. Illinois negotiated a contract where each minute costs nine-tenths of a cent.

Federal government agencies have looked at the issue as well. After years of litigation, the Federal Communicat­ions Commission in 2022 set a 21-cent-per-minute cap on interstate phone calls and set maximums on fees. A former FCC commission­er in 2017 called the prison phone industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”

Nobody testified against the Colorado bill during hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee, but Amabile knows convincing lawmakers to spend millions on phone calls for incarcerat­ed people could be a hard sell.

But the state must do

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