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Lawmaker Fail Again in Effort to Give Inmates, Families Free Phone Calls

Inmates and their loved ones will not have free prison phone calls anytime soon, but lawmakers are working on legislation to keep rates low.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, sponsored House Bill 801, which passed 56-41 with some Republican support. It passed on the final day a bill could be heard in its respective chamber.

The bill originally proposed for the Virginia Department of Corrections to provide free telephone and video calls to inmates, and make a minimum of one telephone available for every 10 inmates per housing unit.

Instead, the bill was amended with language that VADOC be required to use the lowest rate. Lawmakers also eliminated language that would have added more telephones per inmate.

Rasoul did not respond to a phone request.

Prison telephone and video systems are outsourced through third-party companies. A phone call costs an inmate just over 4 cents per minute and a video call costs 20 cents per minute, according to the bill’s fiscal impact statement. VADOC reported the cost has remained the same since 2015.

It would cost approximately $14.4 million to provide the proposed free phone and video calls, VADOC estimated.

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, criticized the bill’s cost, and simply stated “nothing’s free” during the bill’s committee hearing.

Del. Holly Seibold, D-Fairfax, argued the bill is the “best bang for our buck.”

“I would love to see those who reenter society in a great mental state so that they are able to get a job, reemerge into society and connect with their family,” Seibold said. “If we know this is the best way to do so, I think this is a great way to spend part of our $1.5 billion budget.”

VADOC also has an active request for proposals to implement a new system utilizing tablets and an independent Wi-Fi network, according to Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

Boysko’s bill was continued to next year for budgetary reasons.

Legislators have tried to make prison phone calls free for the past two sessions. Boysko sponsored a similar bill last year, after she was part of a work group to make recommendations about the reduction or elimination of inmate fees.

The group cited research that people are less likely to become repeat offenders if they have increased access to communication. There could also be decreases in prison misconduct, good order in facilities and stronger parent-child relationships. Such access to free phone calls could be considered “a rehabilitative program,” rather than a service.

“They’re already removed in person, but to remove their ability to just connect with their children, with their husbands or wives and their parents, it’s an additional hard, difficult situation for them,” Boysko said.

Boysko worked in 2020 to reform the earned sentence-crediting system and decided there is a lot of reform that needs to be done regarding incarceration in the country.

People who are incarcerated might need to be “prepared and connected to the community when they do get to go home,” Boysko said.

 “I want them to be law-abiding, successful members of society instead of coming out and having absolutely no connections with people and not really having a grounded understanding of what is expected of them,” Boysko said. “I think that we’re all safer when their support system is there to help them to navigate life after incarceration.”

Paulettra James is a founder of The Sistas in Prison Reform, which describes itself as a group that believes in “redemption, rehabilitation, and remorse.”

James’ husband has been incarcerated for robbery for over two decades. It is hard to stay in contact with her incarcerated loved ones because the phone bills can range between $300 and $400 a month, she said. She also pays the bill for her husband to talk to his parents, who cannot afford it with their fixed-income.

“It’s very important for him to be able to maintain contact with them,” James said.

Her husband’s nephew died three years ago before they had a chance to meet in person, according to James. The only way they could talk was over the phone.

“It’s moments like that, that you realize how crucial and how critical it is for them to keep that communication,” James said.

Incarceration should not take away the status of inmates as human beings, even if they made bad choices, James said.

“Before anything, they are a person, they are a husband, they are a son, they’re an uncle, they’re a nephew, they’re a brother, they’re a sister, they’re a mother,” James said. “They are loved as people,” James said.

By Andrew Kerley / Capital News Service

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