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Will San Francisco Taxpayers Have to Pay for Phone Calls From Inmates?

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Prison inmates make one of their daily allotment of six phone calls at the York Community Reintegration Center in Connecticut. Phone calls from jail or prison can cost hundreds of dollars a year. (John Moore/Getty Images)

San Francisco is going to become the first county in the country to stop charging jail inmates for phone calls and stop marking up the costs of items in the jail store.

Those costs can add up quickly: Last year inmates and their families spent about $1.7 million on the fees, even though San Francisco already has one of the lowest calling rates in the area.

The changes will go into effect over the next year. For now, the sheriff will provide free phone calls on holidays.

KQED listeners and readers had a lot of questions about Mayor London Breed and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy's proposal.

What were prices for things at the commissary? Phone calls?

The average cost of a 15-minute, in-state phone call from a San Francisco county jail cost $2.10, and a similar call would cost an average of $5.70 statewide, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

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But even with lower costs, inmates and their families could spend hundreds of dollars on phone calls. For instance, the average jail stay in San Francisco is 70 days. If an inmate made just two 15-minute phone calls a day, that could come out to almost $300 over 70 days, or $1,500 over a year.

Items in the jail store -- like snacks and hygiene products --- are also currently marked up 43% before being sold to inmates.

Where was the money going?

Last year, inmates and their families and friends spent about $1.7 million in phone fees and commissary markups, according to the Financial Justice Project, part of the San Francisco treasurer's department.

San Francisco collected about $1.1 million in fees for phone calls. Under the existing contract, about $500,000 of that went to GTL, a private company that provides the phone service. The other $600,000 went to the inmate welfare fund. That money goes to staff members who coordinate nonprofit services and legal services.

The Sheriff's Department collected another $765,000 last year through the jail store. That money also went to programs supporting inmates.

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What happens to things that money was funding?

Money from phone calls and the commissary comes out to less than 1 percent of the sheriff's budget. Hennessy said that her department built the assumption into its budget that it won't generate that money next year.

Do taxpayers have to pick up the cost? Who is paying for the phone calls?

This plan is funded through the mayor's recently announced budget. Hennessy 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."

About half of all phone calls from the jails are already free, either because they are to an attorney or because they occur when people are first booked, according to the mayor's office.

Is it now going to cost the city $1.7 million more to operate the jail?

Money from the phone calls and commissary fees was not going directly to regular jail operations. How much San Francisco will spend on the project is not entirely clear. That could depend on the new phone contract and whether there are free call limits.

After New York City made jail calls free last year, it reported a 38% increase in calls.

Is this going to be applied statewide at any point?

So far, this is only a San Francisco program.

There has been a movement to re-examine fees throughout the state. Last year Alameda County and San Francisco eliminated criminal justice fees related to probation, reports and booking. Also, there has been state legislation around bail reform and traffic fees.

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