This past spring, both the Massachusetts House and Senate advanced bills to end exploitative telecom fees in the state’s prisons and jails, making phone and video calls free for incarcerated people. For family members—many of whom go into debt to afford the cost of prison calls and visits—the legislation promises much needed relief. But as the Conference Committee hammers out the final details of the FY ’23 budget, advocates and families worry that a no-cost calls policy could result in reduced phone access if lawmakers don’t include explicit language guaranteeing prisoners minimum daily call time.
“Without a guaranteed minimum,” the Keeping Families Connected Coalition wrote in a June 17 letter to the Budget Conference Committee, “ironically, many incarcerated people could end up with less contact with loved ones than they now have – undermining the policy’s goal of keeping families connected.” Currently, calls are limited only by a person’s ability to pay.
The Coalition’s concerns stem from statements Hampden County Sheriff, Nick Cocchi, made to a WGBH reporter in May that no-cost calls would have to be restricted to avoid “tension in the housing units.” The Massachusetts Sheriffs Association reiterated this view in a June 7 letter to the Budget Conference Committee, warning that, without limits on the time and number of calls, there will be “strongarming of more vulnerable inmates to control the phones,” facilities will struggle “to accommodate the necessary phone stations,” and inmates will be less inclined to participate in “education and programming,”
But these claims are not supported by evidence from the places where no-cost calls have already been implemented.
In San Francisco, jail calls have been free without added time restrictions since 2020, and administrators there say they have seen less rather than more phone-related conflict. “The [policy] has had a calming effect,” said Kevin Fischer-Paulson, Chief of Custody for the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department. “The number of fights in the jail, especially fights over the phone, has reduced considerably.” Under the old system, he said, individuals without money on their accounts would regularly “strong arm” those who had money to extract their pin numbers.
By creating phone lists during non-programming hours, jails ensure that phone access is distributed fairly based on the number of individuals in a unit, the number of phones and the total available time. The county has recorded a 41 percent increase in call volume, with individuals spending 81 percent more time in communication with their families compared to prior years. “There’s less tension now,” Fischer-Paulson said, “because if you’re worried about your case and you’ve at least talked it over with your mother, your wife, your brother, or your girlfriend, you are sharing some of your pain.”
New York City made all jail calls free in 2019, and according to Bill Heinzen, a spokesperson for the City’s Board of Correction, the policy has not increased phone-related conflict. “Providing free telephone service to people in custody is a humane and positive way to connect people in custody with their families and communities,” Heizen told the journal Governing. “By contrast, not providing free calls may give rise to isolation, jealousy and abuse of access to telephone calls, all of which endanger people in custody and correctional staff.”
A spokesperson for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which implemented free jail calls in July 2021, said, in an email response, “The ‘No Cost Communications’ has naturally resulted in an increased number of total phone calls, usage minutes, and therefore associated costs, but there have been few associated problems otherwise.”
Jurisdictions that have eliminated phone fees have also come up with reasonable ways to accommodate the increase in call volume. Connecticut, where no-cost calls took effect across all state facilities on July 1, has made tablets—previously used only for email and media use and distributed free of cost—available for phone calls. “This is how we’ve avoided potential competition over phone access now that calls are free,” Andrius Banevicius, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said.
The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department renegotiated its contract with telecom provider Viapath (formerly GTL) based on a fixed price per phone line rather than the former per-minute call rate; as a result, Fisher-Paulson said, the company has been incentivized to provide additional phones, which are now rolled into the units on carts.
In none of these places have free calls interfered with prisoners’ willingness to participate in educational or other rehabilitative programming, since phone calls are only available during “rec” and other unprogrammed periods in the day.
Advocates in Massachusetts are calling on legislators to include a minimum guarantee of 120 minutes per day, if not unlimited calls, in the final draft of the budget. “We don’t want anybody to have less access to the phone as a result of this policy than they have today,” said Rachel Roth, a member of the Keeping Families Connected Coalition. “Today people can use the phones, as much as they can afford, during the blocks of time when they have no programming or other obligations. We want to lift the floor so that everyone can have the same access to their loved ones, not just those who can afford it.”
While 120 minutes may sound high, modeling data produced by the organization Worth Rises shows that, in jurisdictions where calls are free, people on average use only 30 minutes a day. This average includes people who may make no calls on a given day and those who may make multiple calls totaling more than 30 minutes. “Phone use varies person to person and day to day,” said Worth Rises Executive Director, Bianca Tylek. “Someone who may not use the phone often, may have an emergency one day like the death of a loved one. No one should be prevented from communicating with their families as often as possible, not by cost or policy.”
Thomasina Baker, a patient care coordinator at Boston Medical Center, whose daughter, Kimya Foust, was incarcerated in MCI Framingham for 15 years, recalled numerous situations when she needed more than a 20-minute call to help her daughter get through a crisis. At one point, Foust was removed from the prison for emergency surgery. “For 15 days we had no idea where she was,” Baker said. “The prison officials wouldn’t tell us anything.” When Foust finally called, she was weak and groggy. As she struggled to explain what had happened, the call cut off in the middle. She couldn’t call back until the next morning. “I was left in a state of anxiety,” Baker said. “What do I do? If I call the prison, they’re not going to tell me anything. I needed more time with Kim.”
Many times, Foust just needed to process the emotions brought up by an intense therapy session or a conflict in her unit. “It could take a bunch of calls to get through it,” Baker said. Some of Foust’s friends, who didn’t have family to talk to, also leaned on Baker for support. “Prison creates a lot of anxiety for these girls. If the prisons reduce call time, I can’t imagine the suffering it will cause.”
Although the Massachusetts sheriffs have paid lip service to the importance of family connection in rehabilitation, they have long resisted the idea of eliminating user phone fees and the sizeable commissions they receive from telecom providers. As previously reported here, sheriffs have repeated the refrain that their loss of phone revenues will mean cuts to valuable “inmate programming.”
Yet Lawmakers have made clear that programs belong in the normal correctional budget and shouldn’t be paid for through a tax on families. “If we decide to have no-cost calls,” Representative Michael Day told this reporter in April, “then we understand that it comes with a cost that we will make up through the appropriations process.”
On April 6, legislators met with representatives of the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and the Department of Corrections, to determine the cost of implementing a no-cost calls policy across all the state’s prisons, county jails and Houses of Correction. According to Bianca Tylek, who attended the meeting, Senator Will Brownsberger calculated the numbers during the call. “Everyone agreed to $9.3 million,” Tylek said. The total includes the cost of providing the phone service, including the surveillance technology, and making up for the lost commissions.
Based on this sum, the House bill proposes the creation of a $20 million Communications Access Trust, to cover service costs and revenue losses for sheriffs and the DOC. Unspent monies would roll over to the next year. As a reimbursement fund, the House’s proposal would require a level of transparency from the DOC and sheriffs that currently does not exist.
Still, despite agreeing to the $9.3 million number in the April 6 meeting, Sheriff Cocchi declared a month later to WGBH reporter Sarah Betancourt that “$20 million figure would have to increase” to cover the sheriffs’ losses.
“Sheriff Cocchi’s recent claims are baffling given data provided by the sheriffs and his own prior comments that support a much lower fiscal note,” said Tylek. “His sudden flip feels like an attempt to secure more funding at a time when sheriff funding has come under more scrutiny.”
Recognizing that the sheriffs and the DOC have grown accustomed to operating with little or no oversight, advocates do not want to leave anything in the No-Cost Calls policy open to interpretation.
“People need free, fully funded, guaranteed calls with at least the same access to phones they have today,” Roth said. ”We’ve seen that the DOC has resisted fully implementing the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act, and that the sheriffs have been resisting the idea of making calls free, so the language coming out of the Budget Committee needs to be ironclad.”
“We don’t want there to be ambiguity or wiggle room when it comes to this policy that people have been waiting on for so many years,” she said.