In the Massachusetts Senate, it’s known as S.2846. But for the families of those incarcerated in the state, it’s a potential lifeline — especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not a single state allows incarcerated people to make free phone calls. US Representative Ayanna Pressley, who is advocating for the state bill and has made reforming the criminal justice system a political priority, believes Massachusetts should be the first to rectify this injustice.
“When someone is incarcerated, the whole family is serving alongside them," Pressley told me during a recent phone conversation. She was joined by Elizabeth Matos, executive director of nonprofit Prisoners' Legal Services (PLS) of Massachusetts. “These are people who love and are loved, and come from families and communities, and maintaining those bonds are critical to successful reintegration.”
This is personal for Pressley. “My father cycled in and out of the legal system for some 14 years, and these phone calls are a critical lifeline. To charge these families exorbitant fees just to have contact with their loved ones is really cruel and unjust."
Currently in the Senate’s Ways and Means committee, the bill, sponsored by state Senator Will Brownsberger, would give inmates in the state’s correctional or penal institutions “the ability to make domestic telephone calls at no cost to the inmate or the receiving party.” It’s projected to cost the state $16 million a year.
As it currently stands in Massachusetts jails, a 15-minute call costs between $1.50 and $6.15, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And that doesn’t even count add-ons like connection charges per call and commissions to the jails. Over time, those fees can add up, burdening families that may already be struggling with legal bills and everyday expenses.
It all has consequences that go well beyond the incarcerated individuals and their families, Matos said.
“In study after study, including the Massachusetts Department of Corrections' own study, it’s been proven that increased family contact positively influenced rehabilitation and lower recidivism rates," she said. “It makes very little sense to create additional barriers to family communication.”
Maintaining that communication became especially challenging after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life across the state and nation. Because of coronavirus outbreaks, correctional facilities have been locked down at various points in the past seven months, and visitations are suspended during lockdowns.
“For four straight months, there were no visitations happening in Massachusetts facilities,” said Matos, whose organization received calls from families desperate to stay connected with their loved ones behind bars. “So the phone has always been a lifeline.”
On behalf of four plaintiffs, including two inmates, PLS filed a lawsuit in 2018 against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Securus Technologies Inc., the calling service vendor that Hodgson contracts. It argued that the phone charges amounted to an illegal kickback scheme that has nearly doubled the cost of calls made from county jails.
In June, a district court judge ruled in Hodgson’s favor, finding that sheriffs are allowed to generate revenue from phone services. In Bristol County’s case, that’s about $750,000 per year. He and other sheriffs argue that they need the money generated from phone calls for inmate programs, but Matos is having none of it.
“Families shouldn’t be a source of revenue for corrections. Correctional budgets in Massachusetts have gone up despite incarceration rates going down for years," she said. “The contention that they can’t continue programming without this money has not been backed up.”
“For those who are incarcerated to remain connected to their family is about their social wellness and emotional well-being," Pressley added. "That is its own program.”
Both New York City and San Francisco allow free inmate phone calls. Earlier this year, Connecticut came close to becoming the first state to allow free inmate calls, but its legislative session expired before the bill could become law. Massachusetts has extended its own session through December, giving Matos and Pressley hope that this state can set a precedent.
“The thing about the criminal legal system is that it treats trauma with more trauma,” Pressley said. "This is a matter of justice and a matter of political will.”
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.