In addition to not charging for phone use, San Francisco also plans to lower costs of items sold in the jail commissary. Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo

In addition to not charging for phone use, San Francisco also plans to lower costs of items sold in the jail commissary. Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo

SF plans to make jail calls free for inmates

Mayor, sheriff propose ending phone charges at County Jail

San Francisco plans to become the second major U.S. city to stop charging inmates for using the telephone amid a national movement to end the exorbitant fees that are often shouldered by family members and friends.

For years, city officials including Mayor London Breed have criticized the costly phone charges. While they have been reduced in recent years, the plan is now to eliminate them altogether.

A proposal that Sheriff Vicki Hennessy and Breed announced Wednesday to make jail calls free includes $500,000 in funding in Breed’s city budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The money would offset the revenue lost from the phone charges.

“This change is an important continuation of our efforts to reform fines and fees that disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color,” Breed said in a statement. “When people are in jail, they should be able to remain connected to their family without being concerned about how much it will cost them or their loved ones.”

New York City became the first major city to provide free jail phone calls last month.

Connecticut’s legislature also considered a law that would have made it the first state in the nation to provide fee jail phone calls, but the proposal wasn’t approved before legislative session ended last week.

In San Francisco, the phone calls would not be free right away, but likely early next year or the spring of 2020.

The plan also calls for The City to lower the costs of items sold in the jail commissary by no longer collecting commissions on the sales.

“Incarcerated individuals should be able to purchase items from the jail commissary without having to pay extra for even the most basic goods,” Breed said.

The commissary sells a range of items like food, stationary, sneakers and hygiene products. The jail collected about $764,000 in commissary fees last year. The department has already solicited a new contract for the commissary that doesn’t include jail commissions.

The proposal is informed by the Treasurer Jose Cisneros’ Financial Justice Project, which calls attention to adverse impacts city fees have on San Francisco’s low-income and people of color.

“We would expect the prices to go way down on the items that the people are buying,” Hennessy said. “People are pre-trial for the most part. If they were not in custody they would have access to these items at a much lower rate.”

The free phone call proposal comes as The City’s existing contract with Global Tel*Link ends Nov. 30.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to enter into a new contract through a competitive bidding process using the parameters of free phone calls for all. However, they may extend the current contract on a month-to-month basis to have more time.

Hennessy said they plan to work with Prison Law Center and other criminal justice advocates to conduct a survey of inmates about phone usage and to ensure there is equitable access for inmates to make calls in their jails.

“We are going to have to devise how many hours or minutes a day each person gets free,” Hennessy said.

In New York City, for example, those in the jail’s general population are allowed to make calls that total 21 minutes every three hours to anywhere in the U.S., including U.S. territories, with a limit on single calls at 15 minutes.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced free phone calls for people in custody, he said, “For too long have people in custody faced barriers to basic aspects of everyday life that can help create more humane jails.”

“With free phone calls, we’re eliminating one of those barriers and ensuring that people in custody have the opportunity to remain connected to their lawyers, families and support networks that are so crucial to re-entry into one’s community,” de Blasio said.

Under the existing contract, about $1.1 million is generated annually in gross revenues from inmate phone call charges with about half paying for the service and the other half flowing into a welfare inmate fund that pays for inmate services, like recreational equipment and ride vouchers when people are released. The average cost of a 15 minute phone call to someone in California from the jail is $2.10, according to the announcement.

The plan is being praised as the latest criminal justice reform effort in San Francisco and came after months of discussions between criminal justice advocates and Hennessy and Breed.

“This is another historic victory for prison phone justice and criminal justice advocacy,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy nonprofit, said in a statement. “For far too long, corporations and corrections departments alike have profited off of incarcerated people and their families, often communities of color and poverty who can least afford it. San Francisco has finally recognized that keeping people behind bars connected to their families and support systems is an unalloyed good.”

Hennessy said that inmates use the phones more when costs decrease. “When we first reduced the cost when I first got here in 2016, call volumes went way up,” Hennessy said.

In calendar year 2018, those in custody made 715,781 calls, totaling 6.9 million minutes.

Public Defender Manohar Raju said the free phone calls would allow inmates “to stay better connected with their loved ones and gives them a better chance going forward after their release.”

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, which began reviewing Breed’s $12.3 billion budget proposal Wednesday, will discuss the Sheriff’s Department’s $261 million budget proposal Thursday.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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