A small group of demonstrators gathered outside the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford Saturday, urging the passage of legislation that would allow prison inmates in Massachusetts to make phone calls free of charge. The measure has been reported out favorably from the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and a vote is expected on the floor before the end of the year.

The demonstrators say inmates are charged exorbitant rates which put a financial burden on the inmates and their families. Sheriffs argue, however, the current system generates revenue for departments across the state and pays for social programs for inmates.

To organizer Raphael Pizarro, the issue boils down to a matter of fairness.

"Because you have money or come from a wealthy family, you can make phone calls," he said. "But you over here, you don't have the right to do it simply because you're poor, or because you come from a family with no money. I don't think taxpayers think that's fair."

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Lynn, who lives on the South Shore, told WBSM News a loved one recently served time in Plymouth County. She says it cost her up to $60 a week for phone calls. Lynn feels the state should be paying for those phone calls, and not just to save her money. She says with many inmates suffering from mental illness, depression, and suicidal tendencies, they need contact with their loved ones. Lynn says "it's inhumane to have inmates or their families have to pick up the tab for calls."

The Bristol County Sheriff's Department recently negotiated a new contract with its phone service provider, Securus. Spokesman Jonathon Darling says inmates are now charged $0.21 per minute for phone calls, a rate 42 percent lower than the previous contract. Bristol County inmates are also allowed one free phone call per week, to keep in touch with family and friends during the COVID-19 crisis. Darling says the Sheriff's Department pays Securus for the phone system infrastructure and maintenance, and the rest of the money is returned to the Sheriff's Department for programs to benefit inmates. Darling said he was unsure how much money that was, and that he would get back to us with that number.

At least one Massachusetts sheriff told masslive.com his department had received more than $800,000 per year from the phone call program. Sheriff Nick Cocchi of Hampden County says the money that comes back to his department is used for programs about domestic violence, anger management, having inmates work with employment specialists, and paying for bus service so families who don't have transportation can visit their loved ones in jail.

Sheriff Cocchi told masslive.com if the free phone call bill passes and the revenue from the current system dries up, it's likely programs for inmates will be cut.

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