San Diego County to Make Inmate Calls Free | Union Tribune
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to make phone calls in county-run jails and juvenile detention facilities free.
Because a portion of the fees associated with those calls goes to the San Diego County Sheriff’s department for inmate services — roughly $2.8 million a year — the vote also asks county staff to identify funding to replace the lost revenue.
Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer introduced the proposal. In an interview last week with the San Diego Union-Tribune, she said it was morally wrong for the county to be generating revenue from inmate phone calls, especially since research shows that incarcerated people who are able to maintain connections to friends and family are less likely to reoffend after they are released from custody.
“All of those human connections are just so vital,” Lawson-Remer said, especially for children of jailed parents.
Research also has found that high phone costs disproportionately impact low-income families and penalize people who have not been convicted of a crime. Roughly 70 percent of people in San Diego jails are awaiting trial, Lawson-Remer said.
Currently calls from jails and juvenile detention centers in San Diego County range from 21 cents per minute for prepaid inter-state calls to 33 cents per minute for local and intra-state conversations. Voicemail messages cost $2, and a 20-minute video visit costs $2.50, down from $5 before the pandemic, which has halted in-person visits.
In addition to high per-minute costs, fees are tacked on for services like adding money to an inmate’s phone account.
Dozens of people called in to the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to express support for Lawson-Remer’s proposal. Many described struggles they or others have faced trying to afford to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones.
Priscilla Alvarez, whose brother is in jail, said he often must choose between calling his family or purchasing necessities, like stamps and toiletries from the jail commissary.
Karen O’Connor, whose son was jailed in 2019, told the Union-Tribune that free phone calls can be a lifeline for people struggling with incarceration.
“I can’t help but wonder how many inmates might not have attempted or succeeded in suicide if they had more access to their families via phone,” she said. “Or how many who are frustrated by the system and ultimately get in more trouble while incarcerated could have been reassured by a family member on the phone and de-escalated.”
Since 2012 the Sheriff’s Department has contracted with Securus Technologies, one of the largest providers of jail phone services in the U.S.
Under the contract, the department is guaranteed nearly $2.8 million a year, about $140,000 of which goes to the Probation Department, which operates the county’s juvenile detention centers.
The rest of that money goes into the department’s inmate welfare fund, which pays for educational programs and welfare packs for indigent inmates, among other things.
In the past, the Sheriff’s department has opposed cutting the cost of phone calls, but spokesman Lt. Ricardo Lopez told the Union-Tribune last week that the sheriff recognizes the positive impact phone calls can have on incarcerated people and is committed to working with the county to find a way to replace lost phone revenue.
San Diego would be the second county in California to make phone calls from detention centers free, following San Francisco.
In August 2018, New York became the first city in the U.S. to make jail phone calls free.
The state also is taking measures to cut phone call costs in its prisons. On Monday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that its new contract with communications provider GTL will cut the cost of its phone calls to 2.5 cents per minute for local calls and 18.5 cents per minute for calls outside of California.
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