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(a) In June 2019, under the leadership of Mayor London Breed, San Francisco became the first county and only the second city in the nation to commit to making incarcerated people’s phone calls from jail free and ending markups in the jail commissary store – ending the practice of generating revenue for the City from incarcerated people and their families and loved ones.
(b) San Francisco took this action because phone call and commissary costs for incarcerated people had been a significant drain on low-income communities and communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by policing and overrepresented in the jail system. Prior to these reforms, San Francisco’s prices for jail phone calls and marked-up jail store items extracted approximately $1.7 million a year from incarcerated people and their families and support networks. These costs primarily fell on low-income women of color who were supporting incarcerated loved ones; in San Francisco, the Treasurer and Tax Collector’s Financial Justice Project estimated that 80% of phone call costs were paid by incarcerated families’ support networks.
(c) Prior to these reforms, if a person incarcerated in San Francisco jails made two 15-minute phone calls a day, it would typically cost $300 over 70 days (the average jail stay) or $1,500 over the course of the year. Items in the commissary jail store such as stationery, stamps, soup, coffee, rice and beans, and hygiene products were marked up an average of 43%.
(d) Marking up prices for phone calls and commissary costs is a common practice in jails and prisons across the country. The practice generates revenue for jails and prisons, and profits for corporations that provide these services. Through San Francisco’s previous reliance on incarcerated people’s support networks to generate funding for jail operations, low-income communities, rather than the public as a whole, were shouldering the burden of much of the cost of core operational responsibilities. Further, the jail and prison communications industry, which benefited from San Francisco’s prior system, has grown to a $1.2 billion a year business dominated by a few corporations, and has come under increased scrutiny in recent years by the criminal justice reform community. This predatory industry offers an array of other communications services to jails and prisons – including video conferencing, tablets, and other services.
(e) Research shows that increased communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones increases safety within jails, decreases recidivism, and improves reentry outcomes after release. Communication provides incarcerated people a lifeline to their support networks. Yet, under a system in which phone calls are costly, incarcerated people often have to choose between paying for phone calls and purchasing items in the jail store.
(f) The City should never again generate revenue for jail operations from incarcerated persons and their families. The purpose of this Chapter 21E is to make these reforms permanent to the extent permissible by law. In addition, this ordinance is to serve as a model that can inspire other counties and cities nationwide to put people over profits, end the generation of revenue for jail operations from incarcerated people and their families, and move towards a system of making services like phone calls free for incarcerated people and their families and loved ones.
(g) The funds generated from incarcerated persons and their support networks was primarily used, via the Inmate Welfare Fund, for programs and services in the jails, including but not limited to Prisoner Legal Services, religious services, substance use programs, contracts with community-based organizations who provide parenting classes and violence prevention programs, and program staff to coordinate all jail programming. When this policy change was implemented in 2019, it was done so with the commitment that funding for programming for incarcerated people would not be reduced; rather it was the intent that the City and County provide financial support for these programs, and not rely on incarcerated people and their support networks to do so. It is the intent of the Board, through this legislation, to maintain that commitment to jail programs.
(Added by Ord. 123-20, File No. 200577, App. 7/31/2020, Eff. 8/31/2020)