SAN FRANCISCO—On Tuesday, July 14, a unanimous vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors resulted in San Francisco county jails no longer charging inmates for making a phone/video call or marking up items in jail commissaries. 

The new policy represents the city’s latest attempt to reduce fees that disproportionately impact people of color, who are over-represented in jails. It follows in the footsteps of the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s 2014 decision to allow inmates a free call to their lawyers. New York City was the first city to allow for free calls from jails. The city of San Francisco’s policy will go beyond that by eliminating all commissions from private phone companies to the sheriff’s department, which operates the jails.

The Mayor of San Francisco, London Breed introduced such reforms in her budget proposal in 2019. Tuesday’s vote makes this policy permanent. According to KQED, since Breed proposed such reforms in 2019, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department decreased the cost of all phones calls by half and gradually removed commissary markups. All jail phone calls will be permanently free starting August 1.

According to KQED, San Francisco County inmates used to have to pay 15 cents per minute for phone calls, and commissary products carried a 43 percent markup. While the city of San Francisco was earning $1.7 million from such fares, inmates struggled to come up with enough money to call their loved ones.

Community Works West, a San Francisco non-profit that provides services for parents in San Francisco jails, understands the impact this has had on families. Deputy Director Kyle Magallanes Castillo explained, “The impending change is definitely a welcome one as we expect it to ease the burden on families, particularly as incarceration coupled with this global pandemic has created a significant barrier for connection with their loved ones.” .

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju similarly tweeted, “The impacts on our clients ripple out to their loved ones, mothers, children & extended families. Today is a real step. We hope this model of people over profits continues to be replicated throughout the state and nation.”