S.F.’s Jail Will Soon Be More Affordable For Its Inmates, Their Families

On Wednesday the mayor and sheriff announced they were making all phone calls free, and banning markups on commissary items.

It’s not cheap for inmates trying to maintain a relationship with friends and family from jail. Phone calls are exorbitant, and add up. The average jail stay in San Francisco is 70 days, and if an inmate makes just two 15-minute phone calls a day, that can come out to $300. If they stay a year, that’s $1,500.

And, an estimated 80 percent of those phone calls are paid for by the family of those incarcerated, who, according to an analysis done by the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, are primarily low-income women of color. 

It’s a racist, classist system designed to keep people down. But on Wednesday, Mayor London Breed and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy announced an end to paid phone calls — making San Francisco the first county in the nation to eliminate the fees. In addition, markups on items at commissary would be banned, preventing the jail from making a profit on people buying hygiene supplies and snacks while incarcerated. Currently, these items are increased by as much as 43 percent before they’re sold to inmates.

“In 2019 in San Francisco no one should pay this much money to call their son or daughter or buy basic hygiene items,” says San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros. “We should not fund city operations on the backs of families who simply want to stay in touch with their lifelines and support networks. I am proud to stand with the Sheriff and the Mayor on this groundbreaking effort.”

For Breed, whose brother is currently incarcerated, the issue is personal. “When people are in jail they should be able to remain connected to their family without being concerned about how much it will cost them or their loved ones,” she says. 

The changes will go into effect over the next year. Until they’re fully implemented, sheriffs will provide free phone calls on holidays, such as this coming Father’s Day weekend. 

It may seem like a fairly small move, but in the long run, free phone calls could have sweeping effects. Independent research group Vera Institute has found that those who maintain communication with family during their jail time have lower recidivism rates after being released. 

And it’s only the latest move San Francisco has made to help prevent inmates and their families from going into debt. Last year, $32 million in criminal justice system debt was cleared — such as court administrative fees, ankle monitor charges, and other miscellaneous charges. Leaving jail with debt makes it immensely harder to get back on one’s feet; Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights says formerly incarcerated people have an average fee debt fine of $13, 607 — nearly the same amount of the survey respondent’s annual income.

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