Massachusetts is poised to become the third state this year and fifth state overall to make prison calls free.
BOSTON — Today, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey issued an amendment to a provision of the FY24 budget that will — if acted upon by the legislature — require prisons and jails across the state to provide phone calls, video calls, and e-messaging to incarcerated people at no cost. The requirement would save Massachusetts families an estimated $25 million annually and culminate many years of advocacy by incarcerated people, families, and allied advocates. Although part of the state’s 2024 budget bill, the provision would amend state law so communications will remain free beyond FY24.
The governor’s amendment would set December 1, 2023 as the implementation date, five months later than the date the legislature had set. “This adjustment avoids the need for retroactive reimbursements, provides time for the Department of Corrections and the Sheriff’s Departments to manage vendor contracts more effectively, and addresses fiscal challenges while also ensuring that families will be able to connect with their incarcerated loved ones during the holiday season,” Healey wrote.
The amendment would also amend the language regarding the level of access to phone calls incarcerated people will have. Now the legislature must decide whether to accept, reject, or modify the amendment.
“For years, prison phone companies have profited off the backs of some of the state’s most economically vulnerable families,” said Caroline Cohn, Equal Justice Works fellow at the National Consumer Law Center. “NCLC will continue working with our allies to ensure that Massachusetts soon joins the growing list of states that no longer force their residents to choose between paying the rent or speaking with their incarcerated loved ones. We urge the legislature to review Governor Healey’s amendment carefully and to then act swiftly to ensure free, meaningful access to communications for all people incarcerated in the Commonwealth.”
Massachusetts would become the third state this year and fifth state overall to make prison calls free, following quickly on the heels of Minnesota and Colorado. California made prison calls free in 2022 and Connecticut in 2021. The Massachusetts law goes beyond legislation in these other states because it applies to prisons and jails throughout the state. It also requires video calls and e-messaging, where available, to be free in addition to phone calls, which only Connecticut had done previously. The law would also prohibit correctional facilities from getting kickbacks from prison telecom vendors and protect in-person visits for Massachusetts residents with incarcerated loved ones.
This budget has the potential to bring huge relief to Massachusetts families who pay millions each year to speak to their incarcerated loved ones. More than 50% of these families — who are disproportionately Black, brown, and low-income — struggle to meet basic housing and food needs. One in three families with a loved one behind bars goes into debt just to stay in touch, and women carry 87% of the burden.
In addition to free prison calls in Connecticut, California, Colorado, and Minnesota, calls from jails are free in several municipalities, including New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, and Louisville, Ky. There are also active prison phone justice campaigns in Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington, among other states.
Years of research have shown a range of benefits from regular communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones. Communication with support systems can inspire people to engage in their own rehabilitation and lower tension and violent incidents on the inside — creating a safer environment for incarcerated people and correctional staff. Communication also helps people prepare for their release, helping them to secure housing, employment, and other necessities. Moreover, communication benefits the entire family, especially parents, spouses, and children.
These reforms have been pursued by the Keep Families Connected / No Cost Calls coalition, which is made up of over 80 state and national organizations, including the African American Coalition Committee (MCI-Norfolk), Coalition for Social Justice, Color Of Change, Common Cause Massachusetts, National Consumer Law Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, Neighbor to Neighbor, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, Progressive Mass, UTEC, Unitarian Universalist Mass Action, BDSA, and Worth Rises.