San Francisco Mayor London Breed to Eliminate Jail Phone Call Fees

2 min
A telephone inmates can use at a California jail. Women of color disproportionately pay for jail calls. (Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images)

San Francisco will stop charging jail inmates for phone calls and stop marking up the cost of items in the jail store, Mayor London Breed and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy told KQED, a change that will save inmates and their families about $1.7 million a year and, city officials hope, make it easier for them to keep in touch with their families.

State law allows counties to charge inmates premiums for both calls and jail commissary items — money that’s used to support rehabilitation and re-entry services in jails. In San Francisco, the money is spent on staff members who coordinate nonprofit services and prisoner legal services.

But Breed said that the practice is hurting families of inmates and the inmates themselves, by presenting a financial burden to staying in touch — which makes offenders less likely to succeed once they are released from jail. An analysis conducted by San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros found that 90% of phone calls and jail store costs are paid by the support networks of incarcerated people — mostly low-income women of color.

Mayor Says This Is Personal

Breed, who grew up in public housing and whose brother is serving a 44-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery, said the issue is personal for her. Her office said the change will make San Francisco the first city in the nation to stop generating any revenue from incarcerated people and their families.

“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,” she said.

“Not being able to provide support to family members who were behind bars — it can be quite depressing and frustrating … this was something I thought was an important issue, to address equity and fairness in our criminal justice system.”

Mary Vandigriff also has personal experience with those barriers — she did several jail stints when she was using drugs, and at times couldn’t afford to talk to her family.

“It's horrible,” she said. “Not being able to call your children, or not being able to have the support of your parents — my father died when I was in jail. I couldn't call. It makes you feel lonely, it makes you feel isolated. … It's a horrible feeling — you feel like you have no support.”

The Cost of Not Staying in Touch

That isolation translates to real impacts — and costs — for the broader community, said Anne Stuhldreher, director of financial justice at the treasurer’s office. She said in San Francisco, which already has lower call costs than most of the state, a 15-minute call works out to around $2.10, or a total of $300 for someone during the average jail stay of 70 days, if they call family and friends twice a day.

That cost can push low-income families into debt.

“What I hear over and over again is that if your son or daughter calls collect from jail, you are not going to say no, and $300 over 70 days ... it’s a huge economic burden, that disproportionately impacts low-income women of color,” she said.

The thing is, said Stuhldreher, daily contact is something the city wants inmates to have.

“Lots of research shows that the more someone in jail stays in touch with their support network, the better they do in jail and during re-entry -- people who stay in touch are much less likely to recidivate, to go right back to jail,” she said, noting that if inmates can’t use the phone, they can’t arrange for a place to stay, or look for jobs, before their release.

Stuhldreher predicted that the change could lead to a safer community and save the city money.

“When we cut people off from their support networks, and ask them to pay high prices that they cannot afford, to stay in touch with their support networks, we end up paying the price,” she said.

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Budgeting for the Change

The change was included in Breed’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and will occur sometime in the coming months, after the city issues a request for proposals for a new telephone contract.

Stuhldreher said that phone calls currently generate $1 million a year, money that’s split between the Sheriff’s Department and the phone company. Items in the jail store — like hygiene products and food — are marked up 43%, and generate another $650,000 in revenue for the Sheriff’s Department.

California Jails
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Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, who has already worked to lower jail phone call fees to less than half of the state average, said the sheriff's department is now working to figure out logistics, including a new telephone contract.

"The harder thing for us is capacity issues — how many free phone call minutes do they get? How do we manage those in a safe manner?" she said. "It's a heavy lift to get it going in a way that is safe."

The proposal is part of a growing trend in San Francisco and other jurisdictions to try to reduce the prohibitive fees that disproportionately affect low-income people of color. Last year, the county eliminated administrative fees charged to people caught up in the criminal justice system, writing off $32 million in debt owed by 21,000 people. And in 2014, the Sheriff’s Department made phone calls by inmates to their lawyers free.

New York City last year made it free to make phone calls from jail, and reported a 38% increase in calls virtually overnight.

For Vandigriff, being able to stay in touch during her final jail stint was one of the things that helped her turn her life around. Now she works as an assistant lobby supervisor at a job training program run by the Community Housing Partnership — and she has become an outspoken advocate for eliminating fees for low-income people.

“Actually being able to talk to my children and my mom every day, it helped me have the support, to not feel so alone,” she said. “It was a different experience for me. I didn't feel like nobody cared about me, nobody loved me. ... Being able to talk to them and them being able to hear my voice every day made them want me to strive for better, and in turn made me want to strive for better.”

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