All phone calls free from SF County Jail

Prisoners, many who are charged but not convicted, walk down a hallway in the San Francisco County Jail at 850 Bryant. Note that both are Black, as are an average of 57 percent of the city’s jail population. Yet they are among the last Black men in San Francisco, the Black population of the city having dropped to about 3 percent. – Photo: Jessica Christian

Mayor London Breed and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy end phone fees and county markups in the jail commissary

by Evan Ward

San Francisco will become the first county in the nation to stop generating revenue from incarcerated people and their families, lifting an economic burden from low-income communities, boosting connection to support networks, and easing re-entry

San Francisco – Mayor London N. Breed and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy today announced that San Francisco will become the first county in the nation to make all phone calls from jail free and end all county markups on jail store items. The plan is funded in the Mayor’s recently announced budget and the Sheriff’s Department will implement these reforms over the next fiscal year.

“This change is an important continuation of our efforts to reform fines and fees that disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color. 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,” said Mayor Breed. “Incarcerated individuals should be able to purchase items from the jail commissary without having to pay extra for even the most basic goods.”

“When I assumed office in 2016, we reduced the cost of phone calls for people in jail to one of the lowest levels in the state,” said Sheriff Hennessy. “Since then, we’ve been studying how we can remove financial barriers to reentry for people in jail, working with the San Francisco Financial Justice Project in the Treasurer’s Office, criminal justice advocates and the Mayor’s Office. Thanks to our collaboration, commitment and mutual compassion for others, the Sheriff’s Department will phase in free phone calls for everyone in San Francisco county jails and end county commissary markups over the next fiscal year.”

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has been a leader in reducing call costs and San Francisco has among the lowest calling rates in the region. According to Prison Policy Initiative, the average cost of a 15-minute, in-state phone call from a San Francisco county jail is $2.10, significantly lower than the statewide average of $5.70. Approximately 50 percent of calls are currently free from San Francisco County jails, either because they are to an attorney or originate from the intake facility where people are first booked.

Marking up prices for phone calls and commissary items is a common practice in jails and prisons across the country, but San Francisco now joins a growing number of cities, counties and states that are working to eliminate these costs, including New York City.

High phone call costs and an average county markup of 43 percent on items from the jail commissary place an economic burden on incarcerated people and their families. If an incarcerated person makes two 15-minute phone calls a day in San Francisco, it will cost $300 over 70 days, which is the average jail stay, or $1,500 over the course of the year.

Analysis done by the San Francisco Financial Justice Project in the Office of City Treasurer José Cisneros estimates that 80 percent of phone calls are paid for by incarcerated individuals’ support networks, primarily low-income women of color. In a national surveyof incarcerated people and their families, the cost of phone calls was identified as the primary barrier to staying in contact with loved ones in prison or jail.

“In 2019 in San Francisco no one should pay this much money to call their son or daughter or buy basic hygiene items,” said 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.”

Studies show that people who maintain contact with their families while incarcerated are less likely to reoffend after they are released and have lower recidivism rates. According to the Vera Institute, the majority of people who exit the criminal justice system end up residing with a relative or spouse after their release, and staying connected with family while incarcerated helps maintain these important relationships.

“This change will do more than allow for free phone calls within county jails. With this reform, San Francisco will open the lines of communication between incarcerated people and their families and support networks, which has been proven to reduce recidivism while boosting successful family and community reintegration,” said Aminah S.R. Elster, Family Unity Project coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners With Children.

“There are significant social and fiscal benefits associated with expanding communication between incarcerated people and their support networks. Yet, more important than utility is humanity. The relationship between a mother and her child should never be exploited, but rather protected and encouraged,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an advocacy organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex. “We applaud Mayor Breed for building on the advocacy wins in New York City to make jail phone calls free.”

This reform builds on other efforts in San Francisco to assess and reform fines and fees that disproportionately affect low-income people and communities of color. In 2018, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to eliminate administrative fees across multiple city agencies that are charged to people exiting the criminal justice system.

The city and county ultimately wrote off $32 million in debt that was owed by 21,000 people, since the fees were charged almost exclusively to low-income people who could not pay them. These fees created barriers to people’s re-entry and also had very low collection rates.

Changes to phone calls and commissary markups will go into effect over the next fiscal year. In the meantime, the Sheriff’s Department will continue to offer opportunities for free phone calls to those without funds in jail during holidays and observances such as this Father’s Day weekend, Saturday, June 15, and Sunday, June 16.

Evan Ward, a journalist in the Mayor’s Office of Communications, can be reached at evan.ward@sfgov.org.