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San Francisco to Cut Costs for Jail Phone Calls, Commissary Sales

by Ed Lyon

San Francisco, California mayor London N. Breed has unique views regarding people who have become caught up in the criminal justice system. Her views extend to the families of prisoners and pretrial detainees, too.

Breed, unlike many U.S. politicians, grew up in public housing. Further, her knowledge of the criminal justice system and the experiences of prisoners’ families is intensely personal: Her brother is currently serving a 44-year sentence after being convicted of armed robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

“It’s something that has never sat well with me, from personal experience of the collect calls, and the amount of money that my grandma had to spend on our phone bill, and at times our phone getting cut off because we couldn’t pay the bill,” Mayor Breed noted.

She is not alone in her zeal to ease the financial burdens on prisoners’ family members, including the costs of phone calls and the ability of prisoners to purchase hygiene and other items from the jail commissary.

San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, as well as Treasurer José Cisneros and his Financial Justice Project’s director, Anne Stuhl, are also firmly on board with Breed’s vision to ease the financial costs imposed on prisoners and their families. Currently a telephone call costs $0.14 per minute, or $2.10 for a 15-minute call in the city’s jail system. Phone calls generate around $1.1 million in gross revenue per year, with about half going to the sheriff’s inmate welfare fund in “commission” kickbacks.

Commissary items have a 43 percent markup, and in 2018 San Francisco jails took in approximately $764,000 in commissary sales.

Under Mayor Breed’s and Sheriff Hennessy’s proposal, presented in a joint press release on June 12, 2019, phone calls from prisoners to their families will be free and commissary items will be sold at cost.

“We would expect the prices to go way down on the items that the people are buying,” Hennessy said in reference to commissary sales. “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.”

“We should not fund city operations on the backs of families who simply want to stay in touch with their lifelines and support networks,” Cisneros added. “I am proud to stand with the sheriff and the mayor on this groundbreaking effort.”

New York was the first city to provide free phone calls in its jails, effective May 2019. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.34]. Aside from an increase in call volume, no problems associated with that progressive, humanitarian move have been reported.

In 2018, San Francisco County forgave $32 million in debts owed by 21,000 former prisoners for things like ankle monitor fees and administrative charges. By eliminating costs for jail phone calls, it is estimated that prisoners’ families will save over $1 million per year – and the move will help prisoners maintain communication with their loved ones and thus improve their chances of successfully returning to their communities when they are released.

“This change is an important continuation of our efforts to reform fines and fees that disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color,” Mayor Breed stated. “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.”

The city’s existing jail phone contract with Global Tel*Link ends on November 30, 2019. If the proposal for free phone calls and reduced commissary prices goes forward, it would likely go into effect in early 2020. 



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