Minnesota Senator Clare Oumou Verbeten and Representative Esther Agbaje, both DFLers, sponsored bills in the Legislature that would make all prison phone calls free. Credit: Photo illustration by Kim Jackson

Healthy, close-knit families are the cornerstone of safe communities and Minnesota. This year, we have the opportunity to enact a simple policy that will improve the lives of countless hard-working, tax-paying families in communities across the state.

Communication is critical to keeping any loving family together. But for tens of thousands of parents, children, siblings, cousins, and grandparents with an incarcerated loved one in Minnesota, simply maintaining contact can be financially devastating. This burden also disproportionately falls on our Black, brown, and Indigenous families, as it is those populations that are overrepresented in our prisons.

Prison telecom is a billion-dollar industry dominated by just a few private-equity-backed corporations that make hundreds of millions each year exploiting family ties. For years in Minnesota, we as lawmakers have compounded the predatory rates the industry charged by adding and collecting a 40 percent commission on call revenues that amounts to $1.4 million annually. All told, Minnesota families spend an estimated $4.5 million to speak to their incarcerated loved ones, according to an analysis by Worth Rises, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to dismantling the prison industry.

As a result, one in three families across the United States with an incarcerated loved one goes into debt just to keep in touch. But this gets more personal for us as Black women, because across the country, 87 percent of those carrying the burden of these communication costs are women who are disproportionately Black, brown, and Indigenous. Every day, mothers across the state are faced with excruciating choices: pay for a roof over their heads and put food on their table or allow their children to speak to an incarcerated parent. It’s heart wrenching, and when stretched too thin, families fall apart.

And still, the harms they endure go beyond the wallet.

Phone calls are a lifeline that create a ripple effect of positive benefits for the family as well as the broader society. To start, limiting human connection creates a tense carceral environment in our prisons. But when incarcerated people have regular contact with their loved ones, the resulting sense of connection increases the likelihood of engaging in constructive behaviors and lowers violence, making the carceral environment safer for correctional staff and incarcerated people alike.

Further, years of studies show us that when families are consistently connected, the support system that an incarcerated person needs to succeed when they go home, as 95 percent will, is there to lean on. Without it, there can be severe physical, mental, and emotional ramifications—both while a person serves their sentence and after—that can amplify over time, leading to the breakdown of familial bonds and higher recidivism rates

That means when a father can regularly talk to his son and a mother to her daughter, Minnesota streets are safer and taxpayer dollars are not spent on the massive costs of reincarceration.

As policymakers, it is time we acknowledge that we made a mistake with our prior policy around prison communication and take corrective action. We must change course.

Together, we recently introduced SF 3007 and HF 2922, legislation that would make communication free across all state prisons. Both bills have been incorporated into the Senate and House budgets and have the support of Governor Tim Walz, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. 

If we pass this bill before the legislative session ends May 22, Minnesota will follow Connecticut and California, which have already passed and implemented similar policies with incredible success. And we can be another example of a state that is dedicated to the dignity of people in prison while serving their time.

We both come from loving families that keep us going and inspire us everyday. All families deserve to live similarly with dignity and hope and not be at the mercy of corporate greed. Frankly, exploitative prison telecom corporations have no place in the lives of Minnesota residents, especially those in our most marginalized communities. 

This simple bill has the potential to strengthen familial bonds, improve mental and physical health, increase the success of people behind bars during and after their incarceration, and improve public safety for us all. We must pass it now.

Clare Oumou Verbeten is the State Senator representing the 66th District. She serves as the Vice Chair of the Senate Judiciary & Public Safety Committee.

Esther Agbaje is the State Representative for District 59B and an Assistant Majority Leader.