Inmates at San Francisco County jails can now make free phone calls amid COVID-19

Inmates at San Francisco County jails can now make free phone calls, lifting the economic burden for families, Mayor London Breed said on Monday.

The sheriff's office negotiated a fixed-rate contract with jail phone service contractor, GTL, to get the lowest possible cost for the city and taxpayers, officials said in a news release. 

Breed said given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, communication between inmates and their loved ones is "critical." However, many families struggle to pay for jail phone calls and with visitations on pause, lines of communication are scarce. 

Officials said the new policy is effective immediately.

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto said, “Our contract is quickly becoming a model for other jurisdictions." Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer echoed similar sentiments, "This new contract again puts our city on the map as leading policy change in the name of economic justice—and where San Francisco leads, the nation will follow.” 

Many jails and prisons across the U.S. generate commission from marking up prices for phone calls and  commissary items. On average, San Francisco hiked up prices on commissary items by 43%. But a growing number of cities, counties, and states, are reducing or eliminating the costs altogether. 

Under San Francisco's new contract with GTL, the county will pay the company a fixed monthly rate per phone device rather than passing the cost off to families. Previously, families paid per minute for the phone calls. 

According to the city, in 2018 incarcerated people and their families paid over a million dollars for phone calls from San Francisco jails.

“As a City we should invest in the most marginalized populations in our city, not profit off of them,” said Treasurer José Cisneros.

Before the new plan, if inmates in San Francisco made two 15-minute phone calls a day, it would cost $300 over 70 days, which is the average jail stay, or $1,500 over the course of the year, the city said. 

A study conducted by the  San Francisco Financial Justice Project in the Office of Treasurer José Cisneros found that about 80% of phone calls from inmates were paid for by their loved ones, primarily low-income women of color.