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'I spent over $6,763 on phone calls': Colorado lawmakers debate bill to offer free phone calls to inmates

Posted at 5:18 PM, Feb 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-22 19:18:52-05

DENVER — For many, it can be hard to imagine what it’s like to have a loved one behind bars and to try to facilitate a relationship for years through nothing but a series of phone calls.

Ebony White doesn’t have to imagine; in 2015, her husband served time in prison, meaning almost all of their communications happened 15 minutes at a time over the phone.

“My husband was the bread-maker. He was making all the money and everything. So, when he went back, it kind of just devastated my life. It just tore me to pieces,” White said.

Not only was she left in a position to have to try to figure out how to pay for her own bills but also send money to prison so her husband could pay for his needs.

The phone calls themselves were also expensive.

“From 2015 to 2021, just by itself, I spent over $6,763 on phone calls alone,” White said.

Along with an administrative cost, the calls are charged by minute. Even when the call drops or the inmate has to abruptly hang up for a lockdown, the calls are charged.

White is a cosmetologist and doula by trade. To make ends meet, she also started driving for Lyft and Uber and making food deliveries for DoorDash.

Still, White said the added work was worth it because the phone calls served as an important refuge for both her and her husband, offering peace of mind and hope.

“It came to working extra jobs, working extra hours, doing everything I had to do to even just pay bills. But, my sanity, my peace of mind, it was his... it's what kept him sane,” White said.

White is far from alone; Janelle Jenkins’ former husband was arrested when her daughter was six months old.

The phone calls were the only way for her daughter’s father to get to know his daughter and foster a relationship between the two. For a while at the beginning, Jenkins’ ex-husband was able to call between once and twice a day. All those phone calls added up, though.

“I've spent well over $40,000, with receipts. That is over $650 a month, just for talking on the phone,” Jenkins said.

With costs in mind, the two have had to cut down phone conversations to holidays, birthdays and other special occasions.

She did try to visit her ex-husband in person a few times, but that comes with its own costs including travel and time away from work.

Jenkins says this puts families like hers into a difficult position.

“Although her dad is incarcerated, he still has the right to be a parent. It's inhumane to think that because he's incarcerated, he's not good enough and he's not worthy. My child needs her father,” she said.

In 2021, legislators passed a law to add more transparency around the costs of calls from correctional facilities by requiring the Colorado Public Utilities Committee to collect data and records about the expenses from telecom providers.

Initially, sponsors of the 2021 law tried to give the PUC authority to set maximum caps on the calls made within Colorado from the incarcerated. However, that piece of the legislation was later removed.

Now, Democratic lawmakers are once again proposing a bill to limit the cost of those phone calls.

House Bill 23-1133 requires the Department of Corrections and Division of Youth Services to provide free phone calls within their facilities starting later this year. The cost burden would shift away from families and onto the state instead.

A nonpartisan legislative analysis estimated that it will cost the state $3.7 million in fiscal year 2023-2024 to pay for the phone calls and $4.5 million in future years.

To come to that conclusion, staff estimated that inmates would spend roughly 19.5 minutes on the phone each day, 1.5 minutes on video services and send 4 emails per day on average.

Rep. Mandy Lindsay, D-Aurora, is one of the bill’s prime sponsors and this bill can help reduce recidivism.

“A lot of times people can figure out their plan for afterwards, contacting services and support, figuring out their living situation and their work situation post incarceration, that sets them up for success,” Lindsay said.

She also has an extended family member who is serving time and so she knows firsthand how cumbersome these phone calls can be financially for families.

“A lot of this cost burden falls on single moms specifically, and in that, women of color that are burdened with this, trying to keep a family together,” Lindsay said.

She hopes this bill will help keep families connected and give the inmates a reason and a means to turn their lives around.

While the bill does not have any announced opposition, during its first hearing this week, all three Republicans and one Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee voted against it.

There are also questions about the cost of facilitating these phone calls, the logistics of how fair time for phone calls would be granted to the incarcerated and more.

Nevertheless, Jenkins, White and supporters of the legislation, hope it will pass to help take the financial burden off of families.

“I can be on top of my bills, I won't have to be struggling. I won't have to be in poverty the way that I am,” White said.

The bill passed the Judiciary Committee and moves on through the legislative process. If it is approved, Colorado would join states like California and Connecticut to enact this legislation.

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