Op-Ed: Why phone calls from prison should be free

Angel Rice’s second job is unpaid and the hours stink. They begin at 6 a.m. when she checks her phone for messages that have arrived overnight from women struggling to provide for a family member locked up in a California state prison.

Nothing they may ask would surprise Rice, whose own husband is incarcerated in Imperial County, 150 miles from his Rancho Cucamonga home. But with regularity, their questions boil down to the stress of paying to keep in touch with a loved one on the inside. “I go into debt to keep my children in contact with their father,” they might say. “But I have to keep my family connected. What am I going to do?”

It’s a dilemma that led Rice and Abby Salim, whose husband is incarcerated in Marin County, to found Empowering Women Impacted by Incarceration – an all-volunteer network of thousands of Californian women helping each other in the fight to support their incarcerated relatives. And that’s why the group, along with other similar organizations, is doing everything possible to urge Governor Gavin Newsom to sign the Keep Families Connected Act, Senate Bill 1008, authored by State Senator Josh Becker. (D-Menlo Park).

The bill would make all prison phone calls free. If Newsom wants to ease the burden on some of our state’s most vulnerable families, it’s hard to imagine legislation that would have a bigger impact for less cost.

Currently, when Rice wants to communicate with her husband, she pays a premium that is only charged to those who communicate with people in jails, jails and youth detention centers. To receive calls from incarcerated people, you must create an account using a debit card or credit card, an expensive process in itself and not accessible to all families with a loved one who is incarcerated. Once an account is created, when a call comes in, charges are applied. (You cannot call in jail or other lockdowns.)

For Rice, the costs are $3 for each 15-minute video call; about $20 per week to send emails (5 cents to send and 5 cents to receive); 37 cents for a 15 minute audio call only (jail phone calls are cut off after 15 minutes).

What about the in person visit? Rice spends $100 on a tank of gas to drive to Imperial County. Then it’s over $70 for a hotel room and about $40 for food for her husband and kids while visiting. (She also spends about $500 every three months on food care packages offered by prisons.) And then there are unexpected costs, like the time her car broke down during the drive through the middle of the desert. .

The expenses add up. They partly explain why 1 in 3 families with an incarcerated loved one go into debt, $13,000 on average, according to a study conducted by the Ella Baker Center. One in 4 women and 2 in 5 black women are related to someone who is incarcerated.

“Our husbands or fathers are incarcerated, so we’re the breadwinner right now,” Rice said. “We are bearing all of these costs right now.”

The government can’t regulate the cost of an overnight stay in Imperial County, or prevent old cars from breaking down, but it can ensure that the cost of communicating in jail is fair.

The prison telecommunications industry is a monopoly dominated by three companies. It’s worth $1.4 billion and, yes, it also generates revenue for state and local coffers, but at what cost? Research shows that the longer incarcerated people stay in touch with their families, the better off they are. So why make it harder for that to happen?

There is momentum for reform in California. All calls from San Francisco jails are now free. The San Francisco Sheriff testified in support of SB 1008, saying the switch to free calls was easy to implement and had a “calming effect on the environment in the jail”. Calls are also free from San Diego prisons. And the California Public Utilities Commission has at least capped the highest price prison facilities and communications companies can charge for calls at 7 cents a minute. (The statewide average before the cap was 31 cents a minute.) The state prison system also made free calls during the pandemic, but that program is expected. expire.

Some may think that 37 cents to get a call from a loved one in jail is no big deal. But Rice knows better, and all the time she hears from women who don’t pick up when the phone rings and their incarcerated son or father is on the line because they can’t pay the charge — it’s a heartbreaking decision.

And when it comes time for someone to be released, the whole system makes it nearly impossible for them to call to find a job or a place to live until they’re back in outside.

Implementing SB 1008 would cost the state about $12 million a year — real money, but only about 0.1% of California’s $14 billion prison budget .

There is more to be done to right all the wrongs of the many prison-corporate partnerships that make money from the desperate mothers, wives and grandmothers of inmates. But Newsom signing the Keep Families Connected Act is a start.

In the meantime, Rice will continue to check her phone for messages from Empowering Women Network families. Many nights she is on the phone with them after midnight. “Everyone is looking for help,” she says, “and they don’t know where to get it.”

Anne Stuhldreher directs the Financial Justice Project at the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office and is a member of the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program.

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