Minnesota would reduce or eliminate the fees that state inmates pay for phone calls under public safety budget bills being considered by the Legislature.
Both the DFL-controlled House and Senate are including $4 million over the next two years for that purpose in their public safety funding bills. Democratic lawmakers say they hope to eliminate prison phone call fees entirely, allowing incarcerated people to stay in touch with their loved ones so they can have a support network when they are released.
"What are we doing to make sure people can re-enter society?" said Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis. "If they can stay connected with their families at no additional cost, I think that this can help that a lot."
Inmates in Minnesota state prisons pay 4 cents per minute for domestic calls and about 17 cents per minute for international calls, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Aaron Swanum.
Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said those costs can quickly add up for families seeking to maintain regular contact.
"I've talked to people who said, 'We spend hundreds of dollars per month between phone calls and video visiting,'" Schnell said, adding that eliminating the fees is a "big administration priority."
DFL Gov. Tim Walz recommended $2 million per year to eliminate or reduce the cost of inmate phone and video calls in his budget proposal released earlier this year.
At the federal level, President Joe Biden has also sought to reduce the costs of phone calls in prison.
The state House and Senate bills do not explicitly say whether the $4 million two-year appropriation would fully cover the cost of phone calls. The House bill says the appropriation is meant to "reduce or eliminate the fees." The Senate bill is more ambiguous, saying the money is to "support communications infrastructure for incarcerated individuals to maintain contact with family members and supportive contacts."
Agbaje, who sponsored the provision in the House bill, said her intention is to fully eliminate the fees. "People who are incarcerated should not be seen as another way to make profit," she said.
Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he shares that goal. Latz and Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, are considering raising the two-year appropriation by nearly $1 million to make all prison communication services free, including video calls.
The funding would help the Department of Corrections pay its communications vendor. It also would cover revenue losses for the department from no longer collecting a commission on the phone calls.
Lawmakers have several weeks to finalize their budget bills before the Legislature's May 22 adjournment.
"It's really isolating to lose all contact with the outside world," Oumou Verbeten said. "If you lose that connection to the people that support you, those are the same reasons why people often end up in our system."
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.