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Los Angeles County Makes Jail Phone Calls Free

On December 1, 2023, phone calls became free for detainees and prisoners in Los Angeles County jails. The county’s Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on November 22, 2023, to amend the existing phone service contract with ViaPath Technologies—formerly Global Tel*Link (GTL)—to shift the cost of calls from the county’s approximately 12,000 detainees and their families to the jail system’s Inmate Welfare Fund (IFW).

When the Board first voted to study the idea in 2021, audits revealed that GTL kickbacks dumped about $15 million annually into the IFW. Along with profits from detainee commissary purchases, the fund balance grew to $32 million, use of which is limited by state law to goods and services provided for the benefit and education of detainees.

The county Sheriff’s Department (LASD) taps the IFW for about $9 to $20 million each year for programming and another $5 to $14 million for facility maintenance. Under the revised ViaPath contract, up to $12.9 million will now come from the fund for calls. But since the county is losing the kickbacks, the hit on its budget is expected to be twice that amount.

The contract provides that the county will be billed no more than 4.2 cents per minute for calls, the rate that kicks in when total call volume falls under 9.5 million minutes. The minimum charge is 2.8 cents per minute if total monthly volume is at least 22.9 million minutes. A few hundred youth detainees in the county Probation Department also get free calls under the plan.

The nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative estimates that the average charge for a 15-minute call in a U.S. jail is about $3, though California’s average is closer to $2. That’s still a big hit for families bringing in just $576 a week, which is the federal poverty level for a household of four. That’s why a lawsuit filed in state court in April 2023 accused the county of charging “extortionate and outrageous prices” for calls and commissary items in jails.

That suit, filed by attorneys with Rafkin & Assoc. LLP in Marina del Ray and McLane, Bednarski & Litt, LLP in Pasadena, demands a refund for a class of detainees held at the jail over the past two years for calls costs and commissary profits they paid—an amount the lawyers estimate in the tens of millions. The suit remains pending. See: Johnson v. Cty. of Los Angeles, Cal. Super. (Cty. of Los Angeles), Case No. 23STCV07316.

A 15-minute call at the jail could now cost the county as much as 63 cents, quite a bit more than the 37.5 cents that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pays since lawmakers made calls free for state prisoners in September 2022, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Apr. 2023, p.43.]

In a statement, the office of Sheriff Robert Luna said that LASD “anticipate[s] that free phone calls will increase the communication between inmates and their families, which can aid in rehabilitation, strengthen relationships and assist in a smoother transition when the inmate is released from custody.” But the statement also cited unspecified “concerns about the implementation details of this program.”


Additional source: Los Angeles Times

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Cty. of Los Angeles