If public safety is the goal, free prison calls are the answer

Legislature can make this happen in pending 2023 budget

WE ALL WANT to protect public safety, but how we do it has spurred significant debate about effective criminal justice reforms, appropriate correctional funding, and critical community investments. Many say that prisons and jails are intended to rehabilitate, but having worked on the inside and seen 33 percent of people released from prison returning within three years, we know it is time we question that claim.

The truth is that our prisons and jails are squeezing millions out of Massachusetts taxpayers, and then still millions more from low-income taxpayers struggling to support incarcerated loved ones. And all this is actually impeding public safety.

But, there’s one cost-effective policy that can help change all that: providing prison and jail communication at no cost to incarcerated people or their families.

Decades of research shows that promoting communication between incarcerated people and their support networks has many benefits, chief among them, improving reentry success upon release and reducing recidivism. Many correctional administrators aim to replicate these outcomes through programs, but struggle to do so.

However, the exorbitant cost of prison and jail calls, driven by corporate profiteering, makes staying connected difficult for many families across the Commonwealth. Massachusetts residents, most of whom are low-income, spend an estimated $14.4 million each year to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones, and prisons and jails take roughly $4.8 million of that in commissions, according to the non-profit Worth Rises.

With incarcerated people earning just pennies an hour, it is their hard-working, tax-paying families paying the costs for these calls. As a result, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one falls into debt trying to stay connected through calls and visits. And this financial burden is disparately carried by low-income, Black and Latine communities, who are disproportionately incarcerated due to the Commonwealth’s stark economic inequality and racial bias in sentencing.

Meanwhile, the telecom corporations providing these services are profiting enormously and unjustly from the inflated cost of these calls, and even more so during the pandemic when prisons and jails shuttered visits rooms. The largest prison and jail telecom vendor in Massachusetts, Texas-based and private equity-backed Securus Technologies, raked in $768 million in 2020, $70 million more than it did in 2019.

Multiple jurisdictions have already put an end to these predatory contracts, and many more are moving toward doing so. New York City, San Francisco, and the state of Connecticut have all passed legislation to provide free communication from their prisons and jails. The Governors of Minnesota and Michigan have appropriated funds in their budget proposals to provide free prison communication. Legislators in California and New York have also introduced legislation to the same end.

In Massachusetts, there is work to be done. Correctional administrators and sheriffs have lowered call rates to $0.14 per minute, which is a step, but a far cry from the cost-free communication families need.

Some argue that the call commissions are needed to fund programs for incarcerated people. But, the Special Commission on Correctional Spending recently concluded that it could not evaluate program spending due to differences in clinical philosophies, a lack of efficacy data, and variances in cost calculations. More importantly, if rehabilitation is our goal, then we must make it a priority in our budget and not the responsibility of struggling families. These families are already doing more to support incarcerated people and their successful reentry, and in turn public safety, than frankly we ever could.

Meet the Author

Chynah Tyler

State Representative, Massachusetts Legislature
Meet the Author
Last month, the Massachusetts House of Representatives took a historic vote in passing its budget to join other cities and states that have embraced connection as a human right and public good by connecting incarcerated people and their loved ones. The House budget would provide free communication from prisons and jails. We are grateful to Speaker Ronald Mariano, House Ways & Means chair Aaron Michlewitz, and House Judiciary chair Michael Day for prioritizing this issue and now urge the Senate to protect this policy and funding in their upcoming budget.

Every day that we delay in providing free communication for incarcerated people and their loved ones is another year we’re choosing to enrich corporations at the expense of Massachusetts families and the safety of our communities. The right choice is clear. Rehabilitation requires keeping families together.

Chynah Tyler is a state representative from Roxbury. Biance Tylek is executive director of Worth Rises, a New York City-based nonprofit that advocates “dismantling the prison industry.”