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State lawmakers will consider a bill in 2024 that would make prison calls free

FILE - In this June 26, 2014, file photo, an inmate uses a phone at the Cook County Jail in Chicago.
Charles Rex Arbogast
AP, File
FILE - In this June 26, 2014, file photo, an inmate uses a phone at the Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Criminal justice will be a major topic of discussion when lawmakers return to the Capitol next month. State lawmakers will soon consider a bill that would allow people who are incarcerated to make free telephone calls and emails.

Staying in touch behind bars isn't cheap. The cost of phone calls and emails in Virginia is well above the national average – that’s a cost paid by families with loved ones who have been incarcerated.

Shawn Weneta at the ACLU is hoping lawmakers take action to help those families.

"What we know is that one in three families in Virginia goes into debt simply trying to stay in contact with an incarcerated loved one. We know that 87% of the people that are bearing this burden are women. And it's mostly Black and brown women," says Weneta. "So, it's not only just a criminal justice issue; it's a gender justice issue and a racial justice issue."

In the last General Assembly session, a bill for free calls and free emails passed the Senate and the House Public Safety Committee. But, then the House Appropriations Committee said no to the $11 million price tag.

Kim Bobo at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy says the cost to the Virginia Department of Corrections could be much less.

"It could be significantly less if it were built into the contract that VDOC has out right now to try and get tablets," Bobo says. "So, if you created on those tablets the ability to do no cost email, no cost phone calls, no cost video calls; you could conceivably have the cost come down significantly."

Advocates say they're hopeful they'll get support from Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has the power to amend or veto.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.