San Francisco to make phone calls from jail free, eliminate markups on items sold in jail

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA at sunset.

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San Francisco will become the first county in the United States to make phone calls from jail free for inmates and end the process of marking up convenience items from commissary stores in jails.

The upcoming change was announced by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy on June 12. When the change goes into effect, it will place San Francisco among the first places in the United States to stop charging fees for phone calls. The new policies — especially the end to commissary markups — are part of what spokespeople for the San Francisco Financial Justice Project and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department call a trend in local incarceration systems toward financial justice.

San Francisco’s plan to make phone calls free comes at the heels of New York City’s decision to do the same in May. New York, however, did not end the process of marking up commissary items with its decision, according to San Francisco Financial Justice Project Director Anne Stuhldreher.

San Francisco Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Nancy Crowley said financial justice for inmates is gaining momentum.

“This push for financial justice is growing,” Crowley said. “If we can be the trendsetters, that’s great.”

The prices for commissary items — convenience items such as snacks, hygiene items and writing instruments on sale for inmates — are sometimes marked up from their normal market prices in jails, according to a study from the Prison Policy Initiative. In San Francisco, commissary items are marked up an average of 43 percent from their normal prices, according to Stuhldreher.

The office of Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín did not provide comment regarding the future of phone calls in Berkeley jails as of press time. Stuhldreher, however, expressed optimism for the movement toward financial justice in prisons and jails.

“I think we’re starting to see a lot of places start to take a hard look at this practice,” Stuhldreher said. “I am confident that we may be the first to do this, but we will not be the last.”

In talking about the new policy change, Stuhldreher cited the movement against criminal justice fees. According to the Administrative Code for Criminal Justice System Fees and Penalties, in July 2018, San Francisco eliminated fees for released inmates, which Stuhldreher said created “huge barriers for reentry” after incarceration. In November of that year, Alameda County followed suit, eliminating some of the fees inmates could be charged.

San Francisco’s recent decision was not the county’s first move toward financial justice for inmates, according to Crowley — when Breed took office, she lowered phone call costs for inmates considerably. Fifty percent of inmate phone calls were also already free, according to Crowley.

“Mayor Breed is committed to reforming fines and fees across San Francisco government that disproportionately impact low-income individuals and communities of color,” said Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the mayor, in an email. “The Mayor knows from her own personal experience growing up with family members and friends who were incarcerated how important it is to make sure people stay in touch and have strong community ties.”

Ben Klein is an assistant news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc.