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Colorado should let prisoners and loved ones talk for free on phone; opinion

My daughter was just six months old when her father, and my husband at the time, went to prison. I lost my spouse, she lost her father, and we both lost the financial stability he helped provide, at a moment when we needed it most. As the cost of his incarceration mounted on me, I could not afford to keep us together and the closeness of our family began to slip away. My daughter deserves to know her father, but corporate greed is making it impossible.

When he first went in, I was determined to stay in regular contact. I wanted him to build a genuine bond with our daughter in those critical early years. It required consistent and frequent communication, which costs money — a lot of money. A social worker, I was now the sole breadwinner for our family, but after rent, gas, groceries, and other regular household expenses there was little left to pay for calls.

In the first five years, I spent over $16,000, or more than $250 per month, just on phone calls, which back then cost even more than they do now. We spoke every day, sometimes twice a day. I wanted my daughter to hear his voice often. The egregious rates the state and its corporate vendors charged racked up fast. It was not long before we, like one in three families with an incarcerated loved one, were forced into debt.

Soon, the cost became unbearable and calls became less frequent. It tore my heart apart not just because my daughter deserved to feel her father’s love, but also because everything I read–study after study—told me that denying her that relationship would have a lasting negative impact on her through adulthood. Like any parent, I did not want to let that happen, but what choice did I have? I simply could not afford it.

Now, my daughter only speaks to her father on birthdays and some holidays. And despite the years that have passed, I’m still paying off that debt. I take extra shifts that pull me away from her to help pay it down. She does not get the time she deserves with either of us, but all three of us have done our best to stay bonded through it all and I am proud of that.

Still, it doesn’t have to be this way for us or any other families suffering similar circumstances.

Colorado lawmakers should not allow corporations to prey on its families, and certainly should not allow the state to join in. It is not only morally reprehensible but also counter to public safety. Women like me and families like mine are providing irreplaceable support to people who are incarcerated, which encourages positive behavior and improves their chances at success when they come home, as 95% will. There is no program that can do what we do.

Not only are we putting in time to help our loved ones turn around their lives, which benefits all Coloradoans, but we are paying for it too. Families currently pay $8.8 million annually to stay connected with their incarcerated loved ones, though the state could provide free communication for less than a quarter of that, or $1.7 million, according to the advocacy organization Worth Rises. As taxpayers who help pay for our prison system and already pour in too much labor to do what it won’t, we cannot afford this double tax.

It is way past time that the Colorado legislature protects families and invests in the success of Coloradoans behind bars. Thankfully, it now has the opportunity. Introduced by Representatives Mandy Lindsay and Judy Amabile, HB23-1133 would make calls from Colorado prisons free between incarcerated people and their loved ones.

Connecticut, California, New York City, San Francisco, and Miami are just a few of the states and cities that have already passed similar bills. The results are incredible: families, who are disproportionately Black, brown, and low-income, are saving millions and reuniting with their loved ones. Even correctional administrators and officers are celebrating the successes.

If HB23-1133 passes, children like my daughter will have a chance at reestablishing a bond with their parents behind bars. They can have that daily call before bed to help cope with their parents’ absence and still grow up feeling loved. And mothers like me can sleep easier knowing that every dollar we earn is not filling corporate coffers but creating a healthy and happy home for our children.

Janelle Jenkins is a mother and social worker in Montbello.

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