By Sarah Lustbader, The Appeal

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Image Source/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Image Source/Getty Images.

Beginning next week, people locked up in San Francisco will be able to call their loved ones for free. Last year, people in the city’s jails spent $1.7 million on phone calls and commissary, of which half a million went to GTL, a major corrections telecommunication company. For Mayor London Breed, who introduced the provision in the San Francisco budget, jail calls are personal: Her brother is incarcerated. “It’s something that has never sat well with me, from personal experience of the collect calls, and the amount of money that my grandma had to spend on our phone bill, and at times our phone getting cut off because we couldn’t pay the bill,” she said. “When people are in jail they should be able to remain connected to their family without being concerned about how much it will cost them or their loved ones.”

Last month, New York became the first city to offer free phone calls from jail. Until then, another corrections telecommunications behemoth, Securus Technologies, was not only charging exorbitant fees per minute, but also found creative ways to extract more money from low-income people desperate to talk to one another. It allowed a maximum of $50 on a prepaid account at any given time, with a $3 fee each time more money is deposited. In essence, Securus wasn’t simply charging people for the privilege to talk to loved ones, it was charging for the privilege of paying to do so.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to support efforts to make jail phone calls free, starting with the allegation that companies like GTL and Securus commodify incarceration. According to the nonprofit group Worth Rises, correctional telecommunications is a $1.2 billion industry nationwide that profits from the most economically disadvantaged: 1 in 3 families can’t pay the cost to stay connected to their loved ones in prison. Studies indicate that incarcerated people with stronger ties to the community fare better when they get out and are less likely to recidivate. And morally, it seems unjustifiable to deprive certain children of contact with their parents, if those children happen to be poor and the parent happens to be incarcerated. Nor is it particularly costly for cities to make phone calls free. The cost of doing so at Rikers, for example, represented such a small portion of the city’s $1.4 billion correctional budget that one City Council member likened it to a “rounding error.”

Even politicians who have not supported these efforts find it hard to justify their position. In Connecticut, where a bill that would make all calls from prison free is on hold until the next legislative session, a state representative who did not support the bill said “if people only knew that the state of Connecticut is profiting from communications between family members and those that are incarcerated—I think that is absolutely horrible.”

But many who oppose free phone calls see it as a giveaway of sorts, a benefit bestowed on people they see as undeserving. The New York Post took such a position when the New York City reform was announced. “City jailbirds no longer have to pay to make calls from the slammer—in a move that will cost taxpayers $8 million a year,” wrote Julia Marsh and Bruce Golding, who called it a “free phone-a-thon” allowing people to “yak away to their hearts’ content.” They also noted that “even dangerous prisoners locked up in solitary confinement get a single, daily call of up to 15 minutes.”

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Olivia McDowellComment