Today, lawmakers put forward a pair of bills to standardize how much incarcerated folks can be charged for phone calls.
Current state law does not cap how much prisons, or the companies they contract with, can charge for phone calls.
According to research by the Appleton Post Crescent and the Prison Policy Initiative, the rate for a 15-minute phone call varies drastically across the state. In state prisons, it costs 90 cents for 15 minutes.
But in county jails across Wisconsin, that same phone call could cost much more — $9.90 in the Green County Jail, or $14.77 in the Polk County Jail .
The bills are put forward by a group of ten Democratic lawmakers, including Madison area Representatives Samba Baldeh, Francesca Hong, and Shelia Stubbs and Madison Senator Melissa Agard.
And the legislation would prohibit state and county jails from entering into contracts for telecommunication services that charge above what major, national, prepaid wireless telephone providers would charge their customers.
The FCC currently has limits of 14 cents per minute maximum for interstate calls, which is well below what many Wisconsin prisons currently charge.
The three companies that currently contract with county jails are Securus, GTL, and ICS Solutions, who is also the provider for the state prisons. According to publicly available data, at least two of those companies saw growth in profits in 2020.
In a press conference earlier today, Senator LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee said that the bills are about fairness for more than just the incarcerated individuals.
“As of December 3rd, 2021, Wisconsin had 20,088 inmates serving time behind bars. However, those behind bars are not the only ones serving time. Their spouses, partners, parents, siblings, and most important their children are serving these sentences as well, ” Senator Johnson says.
Senator Johnson also says that the bill is also aimed at standardizing the price of other communications like video.
Also speaking at the press conference was James Morgan, Lead Peer Support Specialist for JustDane. Formerly known as Madison Urban Ministry, JustDane is a non profit organization that offers outreach to those within the criminal justice system. Morgan spent over 24 years in the Wisconsin prison system. He says eliminating barriers for incarcerated people to communicate is important.
“That phone call was what reminded me that I was more than an inmate. It reminded me that I was a father, that I was a brother, that I was a grandson, that I was needed, and I was necessary. To come home and be a part of a family, to actually step into the role that was created for me as a human being to be able to guide and direct my children and my family members to protect them in the ways that I could, and at the same time figure how to redirect my life,” Morgan says.
The lawmakers also say that, like with most elements of the criminal legal system, the issue has disparate effects for children of color – and emphasized the importance of a child’s communication with incarcerated parents.
Senator Agard says the bills would level the playing field – and help incarcerated people live normal lives once they are released.
“We know that there is a roughly 34% increase in people, when they can stay in touch with their friends and families, of being able to be successful. And we know that the high and constant cost of communicating with loved ones is a barrier. It puts a strain emotionally, as well as financially, on people’s lives. We have a moral obligation to be fixing this,” Senator Agard says.
The twin pair of bills – one in each chamber of the legislature – are circulating for co-sponsorship.
Photos courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team