The decision by the 14 sheriffs in Massachusetts to give each jail inmate 10 free minutes of phone calls per week is a smart move to help people in custody maintain and strengthen bonds with family and friends outside the walls. The initiative also chips away at what has been a punitive system assessing high phone fees to people with no other options.

Inmates in county jails will get those free 10 minutes no later than Aug. 1, the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association said in a statement last week. The sheriffs also pledged to reduce the cost of subsequent calls to no more than $0.14 per minute. That lower per-minute fee is an important step because many inmates get saddled with high charges based on contracts sheriffs have with private phone vendors. 

CommonWealth Magazine reported in 2020 that inmates in jails and the state prison system — which are operated independently of each other — were hit with various fees and per-minute charges that put the price of a 15-minute call from a low of $0.50 at state Department of Correction facilities “to as much as $6 at the Franklin and Berkshire County jails.” The magazine reported a 15-minute call for an inmate in the Essex County jail cost $2. 

Through numerous public records requests the magazine found that the two private phone companies providing service to county jails paid big commissions and made annual minimum payments to sheriffs departments, which amounted to $11 million in 2019.

The sheriffs point out that, by law, they must use fees collected for phone calls by inmates to benefit the inmates, through such things as vocational skills training, education and other services to help them resume life outside the walls.

The announcement about free calls was made by Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins, president of the association, who said, “My fellow sheriffs and I know that contact with friends and loved ones is an essential component for preparing justice-involved individuals for successful reentry into society.”

Advocates for inmates have long pushed to drop phone charges, since anyone incarcerated has limited options for maintaining contact with family and friends. The pandemic made family contact by inmates more difficult when many county jails were locked down for long periods to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That kept inmates isolated and prevented visits from family and friends as well.

Lawmakers have also been working on legislation to make outside communication for inmates less of a burden.

State Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, filed S.1559, which is before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. That bill calls for anyone in a state prison, county jail or juvenile detention center getting “voice communication service” free of charge. That would include phone or video calls and email.

Some sheriffs have argued against making all calls free because they say it would force them to cut back on what they spend on programs. But the report by CommonWealth Magazine said the number of people incarcerated in the state has gone down over the years, “despite sheriffs spending more money on staffing and overhead. A report from MassINC found that correctional spending in the state had increased $181 million over five years. But county and state prison populations dropped 21% from 2011 to 2018.”

Last week, Tompkins cited the Sheriffs Association’s “commitment to maintaining and strengthening familial bonds,” by granting 10 free minutes and lower per-minute calling fees.

Ten minutes of free calls in county jails is a good start, but lawmakers need to push forward on Creem’s bill and seriously consider cutting all charges for phone calls in county jails and state prisons. 

Maintaining those connections with family members is essential for many of those who are incarcerated to successfully rejoin the community.

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