Massachusetts this week became the fifth state in the nation to make prison and jail calls free.
Gov. Maura Healey signed the bill into law on Wednesday that will go into effect Dec. 1 of this year. The move is a victory for advocates and legislators who have sought to lessen the burden on prisoners communicating for years — and through many legislative sessions.
“Ensuring that individuals in state and county prisons can keep in contact with their loved ones is key to enhancing rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and improving community safety,” Healey said in a written statement. “I’m proud to sign this important legislation and grateful to the Legislature and advocates for their partnership."
In July, the Legislature passed a state budget that included a requirement for corrections officials to make phone calls free for incarcerated people, but Healey pushed back to give more time to implement the program. This week’s legislation also makes video and emails free.
“After many years of struggle led by directly affected people, we are delighted to see this pass,” said Senior Attorney Bonnie Tenneriello at Prisoners’ Legal Services, one of the organizations advocating for the law. “PLS will do everything in our power to ensure that this legislation is implemented in a way that brings maximum access to vital communication between incarcerated people and their families.”
Counties will be refunded for their calls’ costs through a fund facilitated by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, according to Tenneriello. Telecommunication contracts with companies like Securus will continue until they expire, and will be renegotiated.
“It's been an uphill battle to say the least, but one worth fighting for,” said William “7even” Ragland, chairman of the African American Coalition Committee, a coalition of men incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk focused on reforming the criminal legal system.
The Department of Correction currently charges 12 cents per minute, and most county sheriffs charge 14 cents per minute — forcing cash-strapped prisoners, or their families, to spend $2.40 and $2.80 for a 20-minute call in addition to extra fees for putting money into an account.
On Nov. 1, the most recent data available, there were 12,350 individuals in state and county jails and prisons.
Advocates have long complained that fees and high costs exacerbate racial inequities for Black and Latino families that earn proportionately less than white families. While fewer than one in four people in Massachusetts is Black or Latino, this group comprises more than half of those incarcerated by state prisons and county jails.
“Given our low prison wages, our families are often left with the bill, deciding whether to put money on their loved ones’ phone accounts or pay their rent, put gas in their cars or put food on their tables,” Ragland said. “This is all while prisons, jails and their telecom vendors rake in profits.”
In the lead-up to the statewide policy change, some sheriffs have taken smaller steps. In 2021, 14 Massachusetts sheriffs agreed to provide a minimum of 10 free minutes of phone calls per week to each prisoner.
But the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association has pushed back on different iterations of no-cost call bills in the past, saying that their revenue losses wouldn’t be entirely covered by the state.
Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi, president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, told GBH News in a statement that the state’s sheriffs agree that it’s a priority to keep prisoners connected to their outside support systems while maintaining the facilities’ security.
“The Sheriffs have worked side by side with the Healey Administration and legislative leadership on this landmark legislation, and have been preparing operationally for a seamless transition on December 1st,” Cocchi wrote.
Family members have long testified that the high cost of calls have made it hard for their incarcerated loved ones to communicate on everything from helping kids with homework, to organizing what comes next when they’re released.
“My family and I have been advocating for this financial burden to be lifted from our lives for a little over six years now, it feels like a boulder has been lifted off my chest,” said Nia Reid-Patterson, who has a family member in prison, and is part of the Keeping Families Connected / No Cost Calls Coalition, groups and families seeking to make the calls free. “Like many other families, making the choice between paying for calls to keep our families connected and groceries has been nothing short of cruelty from predatory prison phone companies profiting from our already vulnerable families.”
When the law goes into effect next month, Massachusetts will join Connecticut, California, Minnesota and Colorado in eliminating prisoner phone call fees.