Free prison calls proposal prompts vendor rate review
After a talk with state prison officials, Securus Technologies, the vendor for Connecticut’s inmate phone service, says it is willing to offer ways to cut the cost of calls home.
“I was pleased with the tenor and progress of the discussion,” said Marc Pelka, the state’s Undersecretary of Criminal Justice for the Office of Policy and Management.
The company has provided the state Department of Administrative Services with several options to renegotiate the contract to make calling more affordable for inmates and their families, according to Joanna Acocella, vice president of corporate affairs for Securus.
“We are currently engaged in discussions with the State of Connecticut about how best to advance our shared goal of making communications safer, more accessible and more affordable,” Acocella said.
The issue arose after families of inmates came forward during a public hearing in March before the Judiciary Committee asking legislators to support HB 6714, which would make prison phone service free.
The calls cost inmates’ families more than $3.50 to $4.50 for 15 minutes. The state receives a 68 percent commission on all in-state calls totaling more than $7.7 million a year. The company has been making about $5.5 million a year as part of the deal.
The committee sent the bill to the House in early April.
But some legislators were reluctant because of its financial implications. Passing the bill would cause a $7.7 million hole in state revenue and require the state Department of Correction to foot the $5.5 million annual bill for the phone service.
Since 2011, the DOC has received about $350,000 a year from the calls to pay for inmate programs. The Judicial Branch gets about $6 million a year from them to fund 32 probation officers — a little less than 10 percent of the 388 probation officers, according to officials in that agency.
In addition, for the past several years, the state’s Criminal Justice Information System, a massive technology system that is supposed to link police, prosecutors, the judicial system, probation and parole to share information on crimes and defendants, has derived about 50 percent of its $5 million operating budget from the prison phone calls.
CJIS had been hoping to cull even more money from the phone service to pay operational costs in the next fiscal year, according to its executive director.
At an April meeting between the DOC, OPM and the Department of Administrative Services, Pelka says Securus agreed to review the current contract, which was recently extended to 2021, and provide the state with some cost-saving options.
“As a result of the legislation, it has activated people to work on this issue,.” Pelka said.
It wouldn’t be the first time Securus has restructured a contract to help inmates save money. The city of New York agreed in July 2018 to change its contract with Securus to provide free phone calls from all city prisons. At any given time, the city has about 10,000 inmates who are either detained for pre-trial proceedings or sentenced to one year or less in jail. The cost of the calls would provide the city about $5 million in revenue and $2.5 million for the service under the old contract, according to a memo from the city’s Finance Division. The city now pays Securus for the service and does not make any revenue.
Eliminating the commission made by the state is one option Securus is offering, Acocella said. Under that scenario, the state would pay for the cost of calls, not inmates, with the company charging some of the lowest calling rates in the nation, she said.
“Once the state selects a funding option, we will work with them to offer the most affordable services possible while still covering the technology and monitoring needed to prevent misuse of communications tools and protect public safety,” Acocella said.
Inmate Lance Shaver talks on the phone in 2017 at the Albany County Correctional Facility in Albany, N.Y.