Will Mass. follow Connecticut in ending charges for prisoner phone calls? 

IF PEER PRESSURE is a thing among state legislatures, Massachusetts may soon be feeling some heat from its next-door neighbor. 

Yesterday, Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation making Connecticut the first state in the country to make phone calls free for incarcerated people and their loved ones. 

While internet technology has made it possible to chat up someone on the other side of the world at no cost, the business of connecting inmates with a family member who may be sitting in their home a stone’s throw away remains big business. Correctional facilities contract with private companies that end up charging extraordinary rates to manage prison phone systems. In Connecticut, prior to the new law, a 15-minute call could cost $5, one of the highest prison telephone call rates of any state. 

Not only do the charges weigh down inmates and families who are often at the bottom of the economic ladder, advocates say they inhibit the type of regular contact with family that can help ground inmates and work to lower their recidivism risk after being released. 

“This historic legislation will change lives: It will keep food on the table for struggling families, children in contact with their parents, and our communities safer,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Worth Rises, said in a statement following yesterday’s bill-signing in Connecticut.

In a report earlier this month on the state’s move to remove charges from prison phone calls, John Hart of the Vera Institute of Justice told NPR that research has found that “there is a correlation with lower drug use, there is a greater likelihood of finding jobs, there’s less run-ins with the laws when people are maintaining these relationships.”

It’s not just the companies that profit off the system. State and local correctional agencies make money off prison calls as well. Connecticut was reaping a 68 percent commission on prison calls there. 

A similar push to end charges for prison calls has been underway in Massachusetts, but so far has stalled in the Legislature. 

Last session, Sen. Will Brownsberger sponsored a bill to eliminate charges to all Massachusetts inmates for telephone calls. It cleared the Public Safety committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee but then died in the Rules Committee as the session ended. This session, a bill was filed by Sen. Cynthia Creem to do the same. It’s awaiting a hearing from the Public Safety committee. A similar House bill, filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler of Roxbury, has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. 

One barrier to ending the charges is that corrections officials use the commissions they get to pay for inmate programs and other parts of their operations. CommonWealth reported last year that the state’s county correctional facilities alone took in $11 million from inmate phone calls in 2019. 

The state would presumably have to make up for that lost funding if call charges were eliminated, but Brownsberger told CommonWealth last year that lawmakers would fold that into the broader consideration of corrections spending.  “It’s part of a larger budget conversation about the cost of corrections,” he said. 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

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OPINION

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FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

To-go cocktails will be permitted for nearly another year under a bill signed by Gov. Baker, Wednesday. Outdoor dining permits, remote meetings of public bodies and nonprofits, eviction protections, and other provisions were also extended. (Eagle-Tribune

A poll — commissioned by Encore Boston Harbor casino and Plainridge Park Casino — released ahead of today’s hearing on a bill to legalize sports betting shows 61 percent of state residents support the idea, a figure that rises to 72 percent if the proceeds are steered to K-12 education and other programs. (Boston Herald

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

An Amherst eighth grader dies after participating in an online “blackout challenge.” (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Lawrence General Hospital president Deborah Wilson warns the facility will fail its debt covenants and be forced to cut services if it does not receive $25 million in COVID-19 relief aid by August 30. (Eagle-Tribune

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Airlines, banks, and other companies across the world suffered temporary web outages. (NPR)

Hundreds of pages of emails and other documents released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee show the extraordinary lengths the Trump administration went to in its effort to push the Justice Department to look into even the most outlandish election fraud claims in the weeks after last November’s election. (Washington Post

ELECTIONS

State Rep. Jim Kelcourse, a Republican from Amesbury, is throwing his hat in the ring for the Amesbury mayoral race. He will campaign on promises of economic development and bipartisanship. (Salem News

EDUCATION

The beleaguered Boston School Committee, which has seen three members resign under pressure since last fall, elected Jeri Robinson as its new chairperson and gave Superintendent Brenda Cassellius high marks in a performance review that may lead to a two-year contract extension. (Boston Globe)

Acting Mayor Kim Janey opens the application process for the two Boston School Committee vacancies but acknowledges that the tenure of anyone appointed will only extend until the election of a mayor this fall. (Boston Herald

ARTS/CULTURE

The Coolidge Corner cinema in Brookline is planning a major expansion that will add two screens, 200 seats, and a third floor community space to the venerable movie house. (Boston Globe)

TRANSPORTATION

Salem bikers are back in the saddle as the city launches 50 Bluebikes to replace its previous bike-share program through Zagster, which went out of business last spring. (Salem News) 

Weekend service to all MBTA lines is returning July 3 as ridership continues to creep back toward pre-pandemic levels. (Salem News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Worcester County Jail opens a new $26 million medical, mental health, and intake building. (Telegram & Gazette)

Fourteen Massachusetts State Police officers were dishonorably discharged last year. (Boston Herald

Thirteen Boston area elected officials sent a letter to Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan calling for an independent investigation of the death of Hopkinton teen Mikayla Miller, which the medical examiner has ruled a suicide, raising the idea that her death might be considered a “hate crime,” if an independent probe finds she was “driven to suicide due to bullying because of her race and sexual orientation.” (Boston Globe

MEDIA

Gintautus Dumcius, a veteran reporter at the Boston Business Journal, MassLive, and the State House News Service, takes over as managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter, where he got his initial start in the news business. (Dorchester Reporter