Reducing phone charges helps inmates connect with families

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OPINION

It's expensive being poor. Families of inmates often live on the edge of insolvency.

I know a mother of two, married to a man doing time in the San Francisco jail, who is trapped between the domino effect of poverty and the desire to maintain her children's relationship with their father. The trouble began when her credit rating dropped due to late bill payments, which triggered the repossession of her car, which put her job at risk because public transit couldn't get her to work on-time.

Now she relies on loan centers that charge high interest rates or paying the rent on her dilapidated apartment late, all while trying to stave off eviction. She says she contemplates leaving San Francisco on a daily basis. To do so would improve her financial situation, but would reduce her children's already limited access to their father.

Depending if they can afford the time it takes to take transit to County Jail 5 in San Bruno for a weekly visit, or the unreasonable cost of a phone call, this family must literally choose between putting food on the table or connecting with their loved one.

Research shows that inmates who preserve ties with their families, especially their spouses and children, have a much better chance of staying out of jail once released. Keeping in touch is almost an impossible reality considering the jolting cost of making a $1 per minute in-state, long-distance or pre-paid collect call.

Until a cap on interstate calling rates was introduced earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission, the telephone companies providing inmate phone services were largely unregulated. As a result, correctional facilities allowed inmate phone service providers to charge jacked-up calling rates in exchange for a cut of the revenue, paid to the facility in the form of a phone commission. Because these commissions are used to fund services for inmates, this decades-old practice created a paradoxical relationship between inmates, inmate phone service companies, prisons, and county jails.

In the San Francisco Sheriff Department's most recent contract with its phone service provider, Global Tel*Link (GTL), we broke this counterproductive cycle and changed the way we do business. We've dramatically reduced calling rates and surcharges for inmate phone calls, including a 70 percent reduction for a 15-minute collect or pre-paid collect, in-state, long-distance call, from $13.35 to $4.05, and a 32 percent reduction for a 15-minute debit, in-state, long-distance call, from $5.98 to $4.05.

Given the city's longtime dependence on phone commissions to fund rehabilitative programs, like Resolve to Stop the Violence and the One Family visitation program, reducing inmate calling rates endangers program stability while spotlighting an addiction that's shared by almost every prison and jail in the country: balancing incarceration budgets on the backs of people who can afford it least. According to the US Department of Justice, 80 percent of families who have a member incarcerated live at or below poverty levels.

Fortunately, our department recently won a settlement against GTL's predecessor, enabling us to fund programs for several years without taking a hit. But, in the long run, City Hall must realize that gouging poor people doesn't improve public safety. It punishes innocent children by limiting their communication with their family, subordinates the healing value of family reunification to profit, and strengthens the inter-generational resentment that is laced between impoverished communities and the justice system that is supposed to protect them.

Gratified with the unanimous support of our phone rate reform by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department is proud to be one of the first county jail systems in the nation to dramatically reduce its telecom rates.

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