Com­pany will al­low free calls for prison in­mates if approved

The News-Times - - OBITUARIES - By Lisa Backus

Se­cu­rus Technologi­es, the Texas-based cor­po­ra­tion which runs the state’s in­mate phone sys­tem, an­nounced Wed­nes­day the com­pany will no longer op­pose a bill that would give in­mates and their fam­i­lies free phone calls from prison.

In a let­ter ad­dressed to state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Ham­den, Se­cu­rus Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Robert Pickens said his com­pany was with­draw­ing op­po­si­tion to HB 6714 as his com­pany and the state re­view op­tions for cheaper calls.

“We pre­vi­ously op­posed HB 6714 out of con­cern that it did not clearly in­di­cate who would cover the cost of ser­vices once charges to con­sumers were waived,” Pickens said. “But in the in­ter­est of good faith dis­cus­sions with state of­fi­cials re­gard­ing these is­sues, we are for­mally with­draw­ing op­po­si­tion to the leg­is­la­tion.”

The cur­rent ver­sion of the amended bill, which may come up for a vote to­day, would pro­hibit the state Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion from col­lect­ing rev­enue from the phone sys­tem as of 2021. The state col­lects $7.7 mil­lion an­nu­ally from the calls.

The ques­tion now, said Elliott, who is the spon­sor of the bill, is how will the state make up the lost rev­enue and the cost of pro­vid­ing phone ser­vice? “We still have to fig­ure out a way for this to work,” Elliott said. “It’s in the hands of the lead­er­ship now.”

In early April Se­cu­rus hired the Hart­ford-based lob­by­ing firm Capi­tol Strate­gies Group LLC on a $40,000 re­tainer to lobby the DOC and Gov. Ned La­mont’s of­fice against the prison telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions bill, ac­cord­ing to state records.

The bill gained trac­tion af­ter sev­eral fam­i­lies of in­mates tes­ti­fied at a pub­lic hear­ing in March that the cost of calls to loved ones in prison was pro­hib­i­tive.

“My point was not that this was an aw­ful com­pany,” Elliott said. “My point was we on the state end need to be help­ing to de­liver these ser­vices which are cost­ing a penalty above and be­yond what your ac­tual sen­tence is.”

The calls cost $3.50 to

$4.50 for 15 min­utes with the state, with the state col­lect­ing 68 per­cent of the rev­enue from all in-state calls. Some fam­i­lies re­ported spend­ing more than $40 a week on the calls just to stay in contact with loved ones.

Brian High­smith of the Na­tional Con­sumer Law Cen­ter tes­ti­fied in fa­vor of the bill, call­ing it “a re­gres­sive tax on some of the most eco­nom­i­cally frag­ile members of our com­mu­nity.”

The 68 per­cent trans­lated into $7.7 mil­lion in state rev­enue an­nu­ally. Based on a 2011 state law, the money is split be­tween the Ju­di­cial Branch, which re­ceives

$5 mil­lion to $6 mil­lion a year for pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers, and the state’s Crim­i­nal Jus­tice In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem (CJIS), which gets about $2 mil­lion an­nu­ally. The DOC only re­ceives about

$350,000 a year, which is spent on pro­grams for in­mates.

Se­cu­rus re­ceives about

$5.5 mil­lion a year from the con­tract. CJIS of­fi­cials said ear­lier this month that the agency was hop­ing to re­ceive another $2.5 mil­lion from the calls, or other telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices of­fered by the com­pany, to pay for op­er­at­ing ex­penses as the sys­tem came fully on­line in the next year.

The free in­mate phone ser­vice bill was approved April 9 by the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, but has not been sent by lead­er­ship to the Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee for re­view even though it will have an im­pact on the bud­get. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of the Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, said a few weeks ago that HB 6714 was un­likely to move for­ward since it came with a hefty loss in state rev­enue and the cost of the phone ser­vice would still have to be paid.

A re­cent ver­sion of the bill re­pealed the 2011 law and a law re­quir­ing the DOC to es­tab­lish a debit ac­count tele­phone sys­tem pi­lot pro­gram. That ver­sion was rein­tro­duced as an amend­ment that would pro­hibit the DOC from mak­ing any money off of prison calls or deny­ing any telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vices based on the cost of the calls. The amended ver­sion of the bill would also re­quire the DOC to al­low for in-per­son vis­its — some­thing that is of­ten lim­ited when phone ser­vice is free, Elliott said.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Se­cu­rus met with state of­fi­cials in late April to dis­cuss ways to cut the cost of the calls at the urg­ing DOC Com­mis­sioner Rollin Cook. The com­pany said last week that the state has been given sev­eral al­ter­na­tives, in­clud­ing one which would re­move the 68 per­cent com­mis­sion and pro­vide in­mates with some of the low­est phone rates in the coun­try.

Dicken said in the let­ter that the com­pany would work with the state to lower the cost of the calls re­gard­less of whether the bill passes. The city of New York agreed in July 2018 to change its con­tract with Se­cu­rus to pro­vide free phone calls from all city prisons. The city houses about 10,000 in­mates who are ei­ther de­tained for pre-trial pro­ceed­ings or sen­tenced to one year or less. The cost of the calls pro­vided the city with 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 col­lect any rev­enue.

If the bill passes, leg­is­la­tors would have two years to fig­ure out how to make up the $7.7 mil­lion in lost rev­enue and the cost of the ser­vice, Elliott said. The state’s con­tract with Se­cu­rus runs out in 2021. It is possible that the state could put out a re­quest for pro­pos­als seek­ing a dif­fer­ent telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions provider that would be cheaper, Elliott said.

“I’m happy with the progress,” Elliott said. “The goal was to al­low fam­i­lies to call loved ones for free. The money is go­ing to be a dif­fi­cult bar­rier to over­come. But with the amend­ment filed, it would be im­ple­mented two years from now.”

Julie Jacobson / As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

In­mate Lance Shaver talks on the phone at the Al­bany County Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity in 2017. Con­necti­cut is con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion that would make phone calls from prison free to in­mates.

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