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Monday, August 10, 2020

San Francisco becomes first county in the nation to offer free calls to jail inmates

San Francisco has become the first county in the nation to offer free phone calls to inmates from county jail — one of a series of reforms that Mayor London Breed announced Monday to "stop generating revenue from incarcerated people and their families."

Marking up prices for phone calls and commissary items remains a widespread practice in jails and prisons across the country, Breed's office noted Monday — but with the action, San Francisco now joins New York City in slashing or eliminating these costs and becomes the first county in the nation to make the move.

“Being able to stay in touch with family is always important, but it is even more critical during a health emergency like COVID-19,” Breed said in a statement. “This change is an important continuation of our efforts to reform fines and fees that disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color." Incarcerated people and their families paid more than $1 million for phone calls from county jails in 2018, she said.

Breed included the plan to make jail phone calls free and end commissary markups in her budget for fiscal year 2019-20 and credited Sheriff Paul Miyamoto with developing the details over the past year. Miyamoto negotiated the county's "first-in-the-nation fixed rate contract" with GTL, a jail phone service contractor, "to ensure the lowest possible cost to the City and taxpayers," Breed said. Under the new contract, rather than families having to pay GTL per minute, the city will pay the vendor a fixed monthly rate per phone device, according to Breed's office. The new contract also allows for free video calls.

Earlier this year, Miyamoto's office eliminated markups for commissary items, reducing prices an average of 43 percent. For example, a package of Top Ramen — a staple at many prisons — now costs $0.50, down from $1.08, and shoes are now priced at $19, down from $30, Breed's office said.

The San Francisco initiative comes as a parallel effort is before the state legislature. CA SB555 (19R), sponsored by state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would change contracting rules to reduce jail phone call rates and eliminate commissary markups statewide. The bill is being heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Friday.

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