As lawmakers consider free phone calls, expensive video calls come to Mass prisons
First, the good news: S.2846, which would allow free phone calls to all prisoners in a state or county facility, will go to the Senate floor for a vote, Sen. President Karen Spilka tweeted in late July.
If the bill passes the Senate, the House would vote, and then if successful, it would go to Gov. Charlie Baker. Many activists who have been working on this issue for years say it is particularly timely. Free calling is one of the few ways that incarcerated people can stay connected with their loved ones during the COVID-19 crisis without incurring horrendous costs.
And now, just when prisoners and their families thought they might be able to save a buck, the Mass Department of Correction (DOC) is rolling out a plan to charge them for video visitation. And they’re charging a significant amount for the privilege of connecting through one of the same services that gouged them on telephone calls, Securus.
According to Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), “In 2018, Massachusetts prisons and jails combined made a reported $9,000,000 in commissions by charging prisoners’ families and loved ones outrageous prices to talk to their incarcerated loved ones.” As Sarah Betancourt reported at Commonwealth, Securus has an annual revenue of $700 million.
On August 10, PLS, one of the groups that fought for free phone service, wrote a letter to DOC Commissioner Carol Mici arguing that charging for video visits is “illegal.” According to the attorneys, state lawmakers would have to authorize such transactions. Plus, they are no substitute for in-person visits.
Since in-person visitations were stopped at all prisons and jails on March 12 due to coronavirus, state prisoners have not been able to see their loved ones While at least one house of correction has already allowed free video visitations for several months, others said in emails that they were exploring the opton, while state prisons did not begin video communications until August 6. Contrast this with New York, which on August 5 re-started in-person visits with masks and social distancing in all state prisons.
One woman, whose husband is incarcerated at MCI Norfolk, discovered the cost of video visitation not through an official memo or an announcement to families—there have not been any—but through word of mouth. She asked to remain anonymous because she fears repercussions from the DOC, but said that did not know the cost until she tried to sign up on the DOC website and found the form offered her two choices: $6.00 for 20 minutes, or $9.00 for 30 minutes.
“That adds up, especially for a single mom,” she wrote in an email. In June, the same woman told DigBoston that she spends more than $400 a month on phone calls so her husband can help their son with his homework.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of PLS, wrote in an email, “Video calls started at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center first, and then they will be at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, and eventually everywhere.”
The PLS letter noted: “It is unconscionable for DOC to authorize Securus to charge exorbitant fees to the families of incarcerated persons, who are disproportionately black, brown, and working class, to be able to have a simple video conference in order to stay connected.”