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Soap or phone call? Colo. lawmakers want to make prison phone calls free

Last year, people in the Department of Corrections and their families paid $7.7 million to talk on the phone

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The sponsors of the Colorado bill pitched it as a small step to reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money in the long term.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

DENVER — Norman Vasquez often has to choose between buying soap or calling his family while serving time at Colorado’s Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility.

He’s struggled to maintain relationships with his children while serving a 35-year sentence. Losing those connections has been the most difficult part of his incarceration, he said.

“I never thought I would lose the most important relationships in my life due to the fact that I cannot afford to call my children every day,” he said.

Vasquez, whose statement was read aloud by an advocate, was one of 15 people who urged Colorado lawmakers last week to pass a bill that would make phone calls free to people incarcerated in state prisons and their families.

The approximately 17,000 people incarcerated in the Colorado Department of Corrections pay 8 cents a minute for phone calls — or $4.80 for an hour, according to data collected by the state. Last year, people in the Department of Corrections and their families paid $7.7 million to talk on the phone, state data shows.

Requiring incarcerated people to pay for phone calls breaks their connection with their families — the exact connection that studies say helps people succeed after they leave prison, proponents of the bill said. The lack of free calls places a financial burden on imprisoned peoples’ families — many of which are living in poverty — and keeps incarcerated people from connecting to resources outside of the prison walls that can help them re-enter society, they said.

“Their kids and their spouses will be more connected to them — they’ll be more likely to succeed when they leave,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat sponsoring the bill, HB23-1133. “That means we have healthier communities, more public safety and less people in prison.”

The bill is part of a wave of legislation across the country to provide free phone calls to incarcerated people and regulate the private companies that dominate the prison communications industry. The sponsors of the Colorado bill pitched it as a small step to reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money in the long term.

People who maintain family relationships are more likely to succeed after release and avoid a new criminal charge. The state saves money when it imprisons fewer people, Amabile said.

Vasquez knows he will need his family when he is released.

“Who do I turn to when it’s time to go home?” he asked.

[RELATED: Biden signs bill to ease costs for prisoner calls to family]

$4 million investment

Eight cents a minute may not seem like a lot, but it adds up over years of incarceration, said Rep. Mandy Lindsay, one of the bill sponsors. A daily 15-minute phone call adds up to $438 a year. Other types of communication like video calls and emails cost money, too. Incarcerated people have no ability to make a living wage and their loved ones are often strapped for cash.

Lindsay, an Arapahoe County Democrat, has experienced this firsthand — her brother-in-law is incarcerated.

“It became very quickly apparent how cumbersome, how expensive, how burdensome it becomes,” she said.

The bill would require the Department of Corrections to take on the costs of phone calls and allows the state to pay for video chats and emails as well. The change would cost the state approximately $4 million a year, which includes also paying for video calls and emails, according to the fiscal note.

The fiscal note assumes the Department of Corrections will finalize a new contract with a lower per-minute fee of 2 cents a minute and estimates that, on average, incarcerated people spend about 20 minutes a day on the phone.

Virginia-based ViaPath — previously known as Global Tel Link or GTL — provides phone and video call services to people in the Department of Corrections at no cost to the state and instead pays the state to operate in the prisons. Under the current contract, ViaPath keeps all the revenue from inmate calls and pays $800,000 a year to the state in a “cost recovery fee” to cover the salaries of staff members who work on the phone systems, according to the contract.

The bill would ban the Department of Corrections from receiving money from phone service providers for the right to operate in the system.

The phone technology provided by ViaPath allows the department to monitor and record calls and manage whom incarcerated people talk to. The company also provides software that scans recorded phone calls for keywords.

“The added security features are what the vendors provide and are the reason we have these contracts. It would be contrary to public safety to simply plug in phones and open them up for use,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Annie Skinner said in an email.

The Department of Corrections does not oppose the bill, Amabile said.

Having to pay for phone calls also can keep people who are eligible for parole from leaving prison, said Jamie Ray with Second Chance Center, an Aurora nonprofit that helps people leaving prison. People need a place to live before they can be released on parole and need to make phone calls to set up that living situation.

Phone calls with his family reminded George Davis of who he was while he served his years in the Department of Corrections. The phone calls gave him hope, sanity and a desire to do better. They saved his life, he told lawmakters at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.

“A ‘we miss you’ can increase your sense of self-worth,” he said. “Hearing the words ‘I love you’ can invoke a will beyond our knowing to keep striving. It is through those connections that lives are changed.”

[RELATED: Unlimited free phone calls for CDCR inmates]

Glaring market failure

The Colorado bill is part of a nationwide effort to regulate or eliminate costs for phone calls for incarcerated people.

California and Connecticut already have made phone calls free for people in prisons and a dozen other states are considering similar changes, said Bianca Tylek of Worth Rises, a nonprofit advocacy organization that advocates for free phone calls nationwide.

Several jurisdictions are switching to a cheaper method of paying per phone line instead of paying per minute, she said.

“In 2023, we shouldn’t be talking about a per-minute rate for phone calls — that’s absurd,” she said.

Even under the per-minute model, other states are paying cheaper rates than Colorado. Illinois negotiated a contract where each minute costs nine-tenths of a cent.

Federal government agencies have looked at the issue as well. After years of litigation, the Federal Communications Commission in 2022 set a 21-cent-per-minute cap on interstate phone calls and set maximums on fees. A former FCC commissioner in 2017 called the prison phone industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”

Nobody testified against the Colorado bill during hearing last week in the House Judiciary Committee, but Amabile knows convincing lawmakers to spend millions on phone calls for incarcerated people could be a hard sell.

But the state must do something to reduce the Colorado Department of Corrections’ 40% recidivism rate and downsize the department’s ever-expanding budget, she said.

Under Gov. Jared Polis’ proposed 2023-24 budget, the state Department of Corrections’ budget for the first time would exceed $1 billion — a 28% increase from the 2015 budget.

“We are just paying and paying and paying because we are not doing everything in our power to make sure that when they leave that they don’t come back”

[RELATED: NYC becomes 1st major US city to make jail phone calls free]

More work to do

The bill will not affect phone calls from jail. People in the state’s 50 county jail facilities paid $7.9 million last year to make calls. More than $3.4 million of that went back to the jails in the form of commissions.

County governments contract with eight different companies for phone services. The highest per-minute rate is 21 cents in a swath of jails across the state: Logan, Otero, Chaffee, Clear Creek, Delta, Fremont, Huerfano, Jefferson, Lake, Las Animas, Lincoln, Park, Routt and Summit counties.

Amabile and Lindsay did not include jails in their bill because it complicates the discussion by adding dozens of government bodies and funding streams, Amabile said. Each county government contracts with a phone service provider for its jail. The Colorado Jail Standards Commission could also take on the task of regulating the cost of jail phone calls.

Amabile said she’s interested in future legislation to regulate other costs incarcerated people pay to access basic services. For example, families of incarcerated people pay a fee of up to $6 every time they deposit money into a loved one’s account.

“There’s still a lot more work to be done,” Amabile said.

HB23-1133 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee with an 8-4 vote and will next be considered by the House Appropriations Committee.

NEXT: Using virtual reality to improve inmate interaction with families

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