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The Colorado Department of Corrections' Youthful Offender System facility in Pueblo, Colorado, on May 16, 2021. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Trust)

The high cost of calling home from inside Colorado prisons and youth detention centers can have lasting effects on people who are incarcerated and their families. State lawmakers hope to reduce those impacts starting in September, under a new law that makes those phone calls free.

House Bill 1133 will make Colorado the third state in the nation to cover the cost of phone calls made by people who are incarcerated and their families in state facilities. Gov. Jared Polis hasn’t yet signed the measure but is expected to soon.

Currently, people incarcerated in Colorado pay about 8 cents per minute for a phone call and typically talk on the phone for about 7 minutes each day. The cost of those calls is covered by wages earned by people behind bars if they have a job, or by their families.

“At its core, this bill is about keeping families connected,” said state Rep. Mandy Lindsay, an Arapahoe County Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill. “We’ve heard from countless Coloradans who’ve racked up thousands of dollars worth of debt communicating with their incarcerated loved ones. Making prison phone calls free will allow family members, especially children, to stay in-touch with their loved ones which lays a strong foundation to life after incarceration and works to reduce recidivism.”

The state’s general fund will cover 25% of the total cost, or almost $265,000, for call services during the first year of the program from Sept. 1 through June 30, 2024. The state will cover 35% of the total cost for calls, or $445,000, from July 1, 2024 through June 30, 2025. Starting July 1, 2025, the Colorado Department of Corrections will cover all costs for phone calls or about $1.3 million. The bill does not cover the cost of video calls or emails.

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Research has shown that when people are able to stay in regular contact with their families, they fare better while they’re incarcerated and when they reenter society, which improves safety for corrections officers and members of the public. If people are connected to their families while incarcerated, they may have a better chance of securing housing with those loved ones, who can also help them prepare for release from prison, advocates said. 

The positive impacts of regular communication, likewise, positively affects families. The 1 in 28 children with an incarcerated parent, for example, fare better while at home and in school because regular communication with their mother or father can show kids how to build healthy attachments with others.

When the law begins operating in full effect in 2025, the policy will also bring major relief to Colorado families who collectively pay $7.7 million a year for prison phone calls, according to Colorado Department of Corrections data given to leaders of Worth Rises, an advocacy group that helped draft the legislation along with families of people who are incarcerated, ProgressNow Colorado and Stand For Children Colorado, an organization working to advance educational equity and racial justice.

About 50% of American families, who are disproportionately people of color and those with low incomes, already struggle to afford basic housing and food needs. About 1 in 3 of these American families goes into debt just to stay in touch with a loved one who is incarcerated. And women carry 87% of the financial burden to remain connected, according to the Ella Baker Center For Human Rights, which helps people affected by crime and incarceration.

Janelle Jenkins, of Denver, testified on behalf of a bill that makes phone calls free in Colorado prisons and youth detention facilities. She has advocated for several social justice bills in Colorado because, she said, she hopes to inspire others to speak out against oppression and injustice. “There’s power in numbers,” she said. (Janelle Jenkins, Contributed)

Janelle Jenkins, who lives in Denver and testified in support of the bill, estimates that she’s spent more than $40,000 calling her former husband, who has been incarcerated on and off for more than 20 years.

When their daughter was born 7 years ago, when calls ran 12 cents a minute, Jenkins started making more 20-minute calls to her child’s father, because she needed support as a new mother. She also wanted to maintain a relationship with her ex-husband to also help foster a positive relationship between him and their daughter.

“It has taken a lot of stress and strain off of me that he can continue parenting regardless of his situation,” she said last week. “His daughter needs him and he needs his daughter.”

Jenkins said people have criticized her for going into debt to keep her daughter in touch with her dad. “What else was I supposed to do? People need to be able to vent and I don’t want him to be in there creating another crime because he has no place to release his emotions,” Jenkins said. “I was just trying to help.”

Jails and prisons are supposed to be a place where people in custody can rehabilitate and start to rebuild, she said.

“You can’t say you want to help somebody and then cut them off from everything that would be beneficial to their well-being mentally and physically,” Jenkins added.

Increasing access to phone calls 

In 2021, about 15,000 people in Colorado’s prisons were spending just over 7 minutes on the phone each day, according to Colorado Department of Corrections data given to Worth Rises leaders. The corrections department expects that number to double to about 14.4 minutes daily when calls become free in 2025. In December 2021 alone, people in Colorado prisons made about 3 million minutes of calls, according to the data.

The Colorado rate of 8 cents per minute is moderate in comparison to other states, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons data. According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, the cost of calls to and from Colorado prisons has ranged from a high of about 40 cents a minute in 2008 to the low of 8 cents today.

If people who are incarcerated don’t have financial support from loved ones, they must pay for phone calls with their prison wages, Worth Rises’ Executive Director Bianca Tylek said.

“It’s quite a crazy thing to think about when you consider that somebody can be paid per hour what a phone call costs per minute and that’s if they have a job,” she said. If they have a job inside prison, “it’s usually a few cents per hour, so they have to work hours, potentially even days, to have a single 15-minute call — or they just don’t have calls. And that’s exactly why we’re doing this because the reality is many people don’t have support and don’t have any other way of communicating with people because they can’t afford to.”

Colorado joins a growing list of cities and states that have made prison calls free. Connecticut was first, in 2021, followed by California in 2022. Calls from jails are free in several cities, including New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Miami and Louisville, Kentucky. Worth Rises, an organization that says it’s working to rein in the $80 billion prison industry, is supporting other campaigns to make phone calls free in Minnesota, Michigan, Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Some departments of correction are more willing than others to work with advocacy organizations aiming to make prison calls free, Tylek said. For example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections has hoped to get a similar bill passed to make phone calls free, she said, while the Virginia Department of Corrections has fought against such a bill.

“In Colorado, I would put the DOC more on the side of wanting to make something work,” Tylek said. “They were not against the policy. It was just a matter of trying to financially make it work, which was the question we were all contending with.”

The bill, sponsored in the House by Lindsay and Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, and by Democratic Sens. Julie Gonzales and Robert Rodriguez, both of Denver, specifies the Colorado Department of Corrections is prohibited from receiving any revenue and the calls should be free for the people making and receiving them. The Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees youth detention facilities, is bound by the same rules.

At first, lawmakers and advocates had hoped to make video calls and emails free for people in prison and youth detention facilities. But Colorado Department of Corrections leaders estimated that would be far costlier.

Worth Rises leaders hope to propose similar legislation to make calls free in jails in the future, especially because costs are often more expensive at the jail level, Tylek said. 

One man’s testimony

George Davis V, who testified before the House and Senate in support of the bill, said he often struggled to afford phone calls to his family. 

George Davis V was incarcerated for about six years starting in 2005. He made wages while working in prison, but always struggled to earn enough to make phone calls to family members. “If you’ve ever had a bad day and just wanted to hear somebody’s voice and talk to them to feel better — imagine having endless bad days and having no one to talk to,” he said. The Colorado Senate recently voted to pass House Bill 1133, which makes phone calls free in prisons and youth detention facilities across the state. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

He was incarcerated, starting in 2005, for vehicular homicide while driving under the influence and said his time in prison was “horrible, but you make do.”

While he was in prison, Davis V worked in the kitchen and helped people get their GED, so that he could afford hygiene products, food and phone calls, usually to his mother, brother, father and uncle. He was paid 10 cents per day or about $13 per month at the time and usually struggled to afford calls, he said.

“I didn’t feel it was all right to be calling home any time I wanted to speak to my mom,” he said during an interview last week. “Thank God I wasn’t a father at the time. That too was another reason that inspired me to testify (in support of the bill) because now I am a father and I know that there are fathers and mothers who hadn’t spoken to their children because of this same thing.”

Davis V, who now lives in Aurora, said he was grateful for every phone call that he ever made from prison and that he still remembers several phone calls he made to loved ones.

“I remember a phone call home to my stepfather that really helped remind me of who I am,” he said. “In prison, you don’t just have the option to talk to your mom or your dad or your brother. It’s a privilege that you don’t have and when you have a bad day in prison, things can go very badly for you very quickly. It’s not the best place to find emotional support.”

The phone calls gave him a sense of what he was missing at home, which was at times comforting, and at other times, devastating, he said.

George Davis V hands a popsicle to his daughter, Gianna, 6, as she plays in their backyard with friends in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Davis V embraces his son, Julian, 10, in Aurora.

“The phone call gives you an idea of what you’re missing. But sometimes it’s a reminder of where you’re not,” he added. Sometimes, Davis would call his loved ones, and hang up soon after he heard their voices and learned they were faring OK.

“Without having the experience of it, you really take for granted the ability of picking up the phone and calling anyone, let alone your family,” he said. “Written communication is great. But to be able to hear words from your family, it does so much more for the spirit, for the heart and for the body. when people are going through probably one of the hardest times of their lives.”

CORRECTION: This file was updated May 16, 2023, at 10 a.m. to correct an editor’s math error regarding the cost of a 15 minute phone call from a Colorado prison and to add additional information about calling rates since 2008.

Tatiana FlowersEquity and general assignment reporter

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music...