San Francisco Announces All Phone Calls From County Jails Are Now Free

August 10, 2020

San Francisco has become the first county in the nation to stop generating revenue from incarcerated people and their families, lifting an economic burden from low-income communities, boosting connection to support networks, and easing re-entry

“Free phone calls will make a huge difference for incarcerated people and their family members who are supporting them. The higher the price of each call, the more difficult it is for incarcerated people to stay in touch with their circles of support—which are their lifelines and who they rely on to develop their plans of release and successfully transition back into the community.” -- Valentina Sedeno, Re-Entry Services Program Manager, Young Community Developers

Yesterday, Mayor London Breed, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, and Treasurer José Cisneros announced that all phone calls from county jails are now free, effective Monday, August 10, 2020. San Francisco County is the first in the country to permanently stop generating revenue from incarcerated people and their families through phone calls, commissary markups, or other services. In providing free phone calls, the Sheriff’s Office negotiated a first-in-the-nation fixed rate contract with GTL, a jail phone service contractor, to ensure the lowest possible cost to the City and taxpayers.

“When people are in jail, they need to be able to stay connected with their family without being concerned about how much it will cost them or their loved ones,” said Mayor Breed.

Marking up prices for phone calls and commissary items is a common practice in jails and prisons across the country, but San Francisco now joins a growing number of cities, counties, and states that are reducing or eliminating these costs, including New York City who made all calls from jail free in 2019. The plan to make jail phone calls free and end commissary markups was funded in Mayor Breed’s budget for Fiscal Year 2019-20 and was developed by the Sheriff’s Office over the past year. Prior to these reforms, if an incarcerated person made two 15-minute phone calls a day in San Francisco, it would cost $300 over 70 days, which is the average jail stay, or $1,500 over the course of the year.

Under the new contract with GTL, rather than paying the vendor per call minute as families did, the City will pay the vendor a fixed monthly rate per phone device. The innovative cost structure better reflects the cost of service paid by the vendor to provide access to phones in all county jails. The new contract also allows for free video calls.

The contract is a win-win for incarcerated people and the City of San Francisco. In 2018, incarcerated people and their families paid over a million dollars for phone calls from San Francisco jails. In 2020, incarcerated people will pay nothing for calls and the Sheriff’s Office will seek to maximize phone access as much as possible across all jails. For the City, the contract is also a good deal. Overall, San Francisco taxpayers will pay less for jail communications than incarcerated families previously paid to the phone provider.

“As a City we should invest in the most marginalized populations in our city, not profit off of them,” said Treasurer José Cisneros. “These reforms reflect our values as San Franciscans. I hope other counties take a hard look at them and commit to do the same.”

We are grateful to have worked with so many people to make these reforms a reality. Thanks to Mayor London Breed, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, Supervisor Shamann Walton, and Public Defender Mano Raju.

A tireless group of community advocates pushed to make these changes happen from day one. They include: All of Us Or None, Community Housing Partnership, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Taxpayers for Public Safety, Worth Rises, Young Community Developers, and Young Women’s Freedom Center.