mike koozmin/the s.f. examinerState prisons chief Jeffrey A. Beard

Some SF supervisors push for inmate phone call rates to change

San Francisco inmates face costly phone calls from behind bars that also help fund jail programs, but some city supervisors want those fees to change.

While the Board of Supervisors approved a one-year contract extension Tuesday with Global Tel*Link Corp., the message was sent by some supervisors that the arrangement should change quickly.

Under the contract, the Sheriff’s Department receives a portion of the revenue from calls paid for by County Jail inmates that in turn is used to fund programs in the jail. During the past three years, the phone calls have netted the department $2.25 million, or 60 percent of the gross revenue.

Supervisor London Breed said she has a problem with the current system.

“Many of the persons who are paying for these telephone services are people who are mostly poor, and the fees that they’re being charged are ridiculous rates,” she said.

Rates vary per minute depending on the call type and applicable surcharges, as do other potential fees such as for billing or pre-paid deposits, according to the contract. A local collect call, for example, comes with a $2.80 surcharge and an 11-cents-per-minute call rate.

“We are spending dollars in trying to support a population and robbing them on another end,” Breed said. “I have a real problem with this.”

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who inherited the 2009 phone service contract, isn’t happy about the phone rates either.

“Until recently, this has been an unregulated industry completely,” Mirkarimi said. “There has been no regulation on a national level or on a state level.”

But he noted that the phone costs do fund important services at the jail, such as the parenting counseling program and the four coordinators of rehabilitative programs.

The debate is expected to resurface next year. Bree Mawhorter, the chief financial officer of the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, said the department intends to issue a request for proposals in the spring to see if competing companies could offer better phone rates.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 Tuesday in support of the contract extension. Supervisors Malia Cohen and Jane Kim opposed it.

“Overcharging our inmates to be able to speak to their friends and family, which is a key factor in rehabilitating our inmates … just to me doesn’t feel right,” Kim said.

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