SAN FRANCISCO—San Francisco became the first county in the nation to offer free phone and video calls to inmates Monday, August 10th.

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto’s office negotiated a fixed-rate contract with Global Tel Link (GTL), a jail phone service contractor.

The county now pays the contractor a fixed monthly rate per device, as opposed to inmates and families paying per minute.

This new contract is the lowest possible cost for the city and for taxpayers, city officials noted in Monday’s news release.

The new policy is effective immediately.

Considering the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor London Breed believes communication is “critical” between inmates and their loved ones.

As inmate visitations remained on pause and family members continued to struggle to pay for jail phone calls, communications became increasingly scarce, according to Mayor Breed.

In her statement Monday, she noted, “This change is an important continuation of our efforts to reform fines and fees that disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color.”

Across the United States, many jails make money off of marking up the cost of phone calls and commissary items.

According to city officials, before this policy, if inmates in San Francisco jails made two 15-minute calls per day, it would cost over $300 for the duration of an average jail stay, 70 days, or $1500 over the course of one year.

In 2018, over $1 million dollars was paid by incarcerated people in San Francisco jails and their families.

The office of Treasurer José Cisneros conducted a study with the San Francisco Financial Justice Project last year and found that about 80% of prison phone calls were paid for by inmates’ loved ones, which consists primarily of low-income women of color.

Cisneros commented during the news release, “As a city, we should invest in the most marginalized populations in our city, not profit off of them.”

According to Sheriff Miyamoto’s office, earlier this year they eliminated markups for commissary items by an average of 43%: for instance, a package of Top Ramen has decreased in price from $1.08 to $0.50 and shoes have decreased from $30 to $19.

A growing number of cities, counties, and states are looking for an alternative to commissary item markups. Some are eliminating costs altogether.

Sheriff Miyamoto said today, “Our contract is quickly becoming a model for other jurisdictions.”

During today’s release, San Francisco Board Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer noted, “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.”

Additionally, State Senator Holly Mitchell from Los Angeles is currently sponsoring bill CA SB555 (19R) in the California State Legislature which would reduce jail call rates and eliminate commissary markups throughout the state by renegotiating contracting rules.

The bill is going to be presented on August 14th in front of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.