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Washington, Virginia Advance Bills to Make Prison Calls Free

Lawmakers on both coasts of the U.S. sponsored legislation in January 2024 to make telecommunications free to state prisoners and their families. This follows a national trend to ease the financial burden on families with incarcerated loved ones and reduce the associated risk of reoffending for those who can’t afford to stay in touch.

In Washington, state Sen. Drew Hansen (D-Brainbridge Island) introduced the Connecting Families Act or SB 6021. State prisoners currently have limited free calls and video visits, but when those are used up, prisoners must pay high per-minute charges for additional phone calls or $4.95 for a thirty-minute video call. Emails require purchase of stamps at 20 for $5. The legislation eliminates fees for prison phone calls, emails and video visits, which Hansen and other advocates argue will reduce recidivism rates and prison violence, as well as improve mental health for the incarcerated, by promoting stronger family ties.

The bill needs to pass the Ways and Means Committee, but the cost is currently unknown; the state Department of Corrections (DOC) has a telecommunications contract with Securus that runs until 2028, meaning the state must absorb any cost until then. Jerry Thomas, a state prisoner 15 years into a 23-year sentence, said he welcomes the relief the bill would offer the mother and grandmother of his teenage daughter, with whom he has made it a priority to stay connected.

Virginia also inched closer to free phone calls and video visits for prisoners in January 2024, when SB 378 made it out of the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services. Introduced by Sen.Jennifer Boysko, (D-Fairfax), it eliminates per-minute charges, currently at 4 cents for calls and 20 cents for video visits. It now goes to the Finance and Appropriations Committee for consideration in 2025.

An advocate for the bill with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Shawn Weneta, spent 16 years in prison and said, “I can’t overemphasize the value of being able to have that brief 15 to 20 minutes of respite of talking to someone that you know cares about you and wants the best for you and loves you.” SB 378 also mandates one phone per 10 prisoners, potentially costing millions of dollars. But Boysko argued that the long-term savings from reduced recidivism would eventually recoup that expense and save money every year after that.


Additional sources: Washington State Standard, WRIC