BOSTON — State lawmakers are being urged to make prisoners’ phone calls free following a Supreme Judicial Court decision that allows sheriffs to continue charging countymates and their families for the communications.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, the high court sided with Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson — whose office was at the center of a legal challenge over fees charged for phone calls — holding that sheriffs have the legal authority to make money from private contracts for inmate calls .
The case stemmed from a lawsuit, filed by former inmates and others, over fees charged to inmates for calls that plaintiffs called an “illegal kickback scheme” driving up costs for inmates and their families and restricting their ability to communicate with lawyers and their loved ones .
Plaintiffs had argued that a 2009 law bringing county sheriffs under the state’s regulatory umbrella doesn’t allow them to charge exorbitant fees or collect commissions from prisoners’ phone calls.
But justices sided with Hodgson that the law allowed charges for the calls. Chief Justice Kimberly Budd wrote in the 18-page ruling that if the state Legislature intended to prohibit sheriffs from charging the fees “it could have done so.”
The ruling, which comes as a setback for prisoner advocacy groups, kicks the issue to Beacon Hill, where state lawmakers are considering making calls free as part of deliberations on the $49.7 billion state budget for the next fiscal year.
Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, argued the case before the SJC and said the ball is now squarely in the Legislature’s court.
She said phone calls are key to helping incarcerated individuals stay connected to support systems and loved ones who can help with reentry, but the high costs are a financial burden for inmates and their families.
“The prison phone industry is sucking money out of families’ pockets,” Tenneriello said. “These are some of the most low-income and vulnerable families in the state, and disproportionately from communities of color.”
Studies have shown that people who are connected to their families and community during incarceration are far less likely to go back to prison, Tenneriello said.
“We want people to succeed when they get out, and we shouldn’t be putting up barriers between them and their loved ones — it’s just wrong,” she said.
The push for free prison calls is also backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says phone calls are a “lifeline” for people who are incarcerated.
“Affordable phone calls provide a crucial connection for incarcerated people and their loved ones, and improve outcomes for them and their communities,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “To ensure equitable access to affordable phone calls across all Massachusetts jails and prisons, the Legislature can and should continue their good work to require free calls for all incarcerated people.”
It’s an issue that’s been around Beacon Hill for a number of years but has only gained traction recently.
The House of Representatives has tacked an amendment onto its version of the state budget, which was approved last month, requiring the creation of a fund to reimburse jails and correctional facilities for the cost of offering free phone calls to inmates. The plan calls for spending $20 million to create the new fund.
The Senate, however, did not include the proposal in its version of the budget, with debate set to get under way this week. Several Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, has filed an amendment authorizing free phone calls at state and county prisons, but it’s not clear the move has enough support.
Under the plan, correctional facilities would have to cancel existing contracts with telecommunications companies and renegotiate terms to lower the costs.
Critics have faulted House Democrats for including the funding for free phone calls in the budget while rejecting several tax cut proposals from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in the spending plan.
“Lawmakers should be focusing their attention toward providing tax relief for hard-working Massachusetts taxpayers,” said Paul Craney, a for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative group. “Inflation is devastating middle class taxpayers and Massachusetts workers need more money in their paychecks.”
In 2018, Massachusetts families spent an estimated $25 million on phone calls to incarcerated relatives, according to the advocacy group Worth Rises, which estimates that correctional facilities received about $7 million in commissions.
While the state Department of Correction charges about 10 cents per minute for calls, some sheriffs have charged up to 40 cents per minute, advocates say.
Last year, sheriffs announced an agreement to provide inmates with at least 10 minutes of free phone calls per week and to charge no more than 14 cents per minute afterward. But they have resisted calls to make them free, arguing the money from commissions funds important services while offsetting the burden to taxpayers.
Advocates say the commission system is forcing low-income families to subsidize the prison system where their loved ones are being held.
In a statement following this week’s SJC ruling, Hodgson praised the decision as a “win for taxpayers” and said it will allow sheriffs to continue to “generate outside revenues rather than looking to our residents, who are already overburdened by rising costs and financial hurdles brought on by record inflation.”
“This decision is not only a victory for the taxpayers and citizens of Massachusetts, but also for sheriffs who continue to manage our corrections operations in a fiscally responsible manner,” the Republican sheriff said in a statement.
Tenneriello said the experiences of other states that have renegotiated contracts for prison phone systems show it can be done cost effectively. One estimate suggests it would cost the state about $8 million a year, she said.
“This is something that could be done very cheaply, it has tremendous benefits, and rectifies a glaring injustice,” she said. “It’s up to the Legislature to act.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]