Before this, California law authorized counties to charge prisoners for telephone calls and jail commissary items to pay for rehabilitation and reentry services. Under that law, San Francisco generated an estimated $1.7 million annually by charging prisoners 15 cents per minute for telephone calls — $4.50 for a 30-minute call — and a 43% markup on soap, toothpaste, food and other commissary items.
“It can really add up. It’s people’s families who really foot the bill,” said Stuhldreher as she recounted heartbreaking stories of prisoner family members being forced to choose between staying in touch with incarcerated loved ones and paying their utility bills. “Our research shows it’s almost always low-income women of color.”
While Black individuals make up less than 6 percent of San Francisco’s general population, they represent roughly half of the jail’s population, Stuhldreher noted.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is Black and whose brother is serving a 44-year prison term, knows that pain all too well. “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,” Breed said during a 2019 interview.
It is “depressing and frustrating” to be unable to support incarcerated family members, said Breed. Fortunately, she recognized that she is now able to provide that support. In her 2019 annual budget proposal, Breed introduced a set of progressive reforms slashing the cost of jail telephone calls by 50 percent and phasing out commissary commissions.
“This was something I thought was an important issue, to address equity and fairness in our criminal justice system,” said Breed. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed on July 14, ending all charges for jail telephone calls, video calls and electronic tablet usage, effective August 1, 2020.
“What happened last year was really an initial first step. This makes those changes permanent,” said Stuhldreher. “The idea is that those services should be supported in the same way we pay for everything else, and not on the backs of incarcerated people and their families. This nixes that business model.”
San Francisco now joins New York City as the first major American cities to enact progressive laws eliminating jail telephone call fees. Yet the change is part of a trend, in mostly Democratic jurisdictions, to reduce or eliminate excessive criminal justice fees that negatively impact poor people and public safety.
Stuhldreher points to research finding lower recidivism rates among formerly incarcerated people who maintain close family bonds during confinement. “The more people stay in touch with family, the better they do when they get out.”
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