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San Diego County supervisors to consider making jail phone calls free

When Georgina Mercado was arrested in Chicano Park in 2016 and booked into the Las Colinas women’s jail in Santee, her first thoughts were about her children, who were 2, 4 and 6 years old at the time.

Mercado ended up spending three months in custody before the charges were dropped. Her grandmother, whose only source of income was a monthly Social Security check, took care of the children.

“I couldn’t call home because I’m not going to put that extra burden on my grandmother,” Mercado said. The initial connection fee alone was $5.

“Over three months, I think I only called home three times,” she said. “Having those phone calls is a necessity.”

Advocates for incarcerated people have sought for years to draw attention to the high cost of phone calls in detention facilities. In San Diego County jail, a 30-minute call costs nearly $10.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors will consider a proposal by Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer to end the practice of charging incarcerated people for phone calls and video visits. If the proposal is approved, San Diego would be the second county in California to make phone calls from detention centers free, following San Francisco.

Lawson-Remer described the price of phone calls in San Diego County detention facilities as “exorbitantly high.” She cited research showing that inmates who are able to maintain connections to friends and family are less likely to reoffend after they are released from custody.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to county jails and juvenile detention facilities have been halted, making it more difficult — and more expensive — for families to stay in touch.

“All of those human connections are just so vital,” Lawson-Remer told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “The idea that we should be creating a situation to profit off the families of incarcerated individuals who are already struggling day to day to put food on the table, to me it’s morally wrong. It’s not how we should be paying for things.”

Lawson-Remer’s proposal notes that having an incarcerated parent is particularly difficult for children. “Losing a parent to incarceration can be as traumatic as death or divorce,” she said.

Since 2012, the Sheriff’s Department has contracted with Securus Technologies, one of the largest providers of jail phone services in the U.S.

Currently, calls from jails and juvenile detention centers in San Diego County range from 21 cents per minute for prepaid inter-state calls to 33 cents per minute for local and intra-state conversations. The lower rate for out-of-state calls is due to a rate cap imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2017.

Since then, the federal regulators proposed lowering the rate even further and urged state governments to institute similar caps.

Under its contract with Securus, the Sheriff’s Department is guaranteed revenue of almost $2.8 million a year. About $140,000 of that goes to the Probation Department, which operates the county’s juvenile detention centers.

The sheriff’s phone-service income is added to the department’s inmate welfare fund, which pays for educational programs and welfare packs for indigent inmates, among other things.

Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Ricardo Lopez said the department is committed to working with the county on Lawson Remer’s proposal.

“We recognize phone calls and visitations are some of the most important services we provide to people in custody and their loved ones,” he said by email.

The proposal from Lawson-Remer directs the Sheriff’s Department to collaborate with the county Chief Administrative Officer to restore any losses to the inmate fund through other means.

In the past, the Sheriff’s Department has opposed cutting the price of phone calls because of the money it generates for the fund. In 2019, a department spokesman said “cutting this valuable source of revenue would do serious harm to our efforts to return convicted felons to the community with lower risks of recidivism.”

Alex Zermeño, a deputy chief with the Probation Department, agreed that helping young people maintain family connections “does promote better outcomes,” but noted that juvenile detention officials have long sought to provide no-cost communication to detainees.

He cited the county’s practice of providing access to tablets equipped with Skype and the use of facility phones.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that, among other things, would have banned jailers from collecting a commission on phone calls.

In his veto message, Newsom wrote that while he supported the objectives of the legislation, he was “concerned it will have the unintended consequence of reducing important rehabilitative and educational programming for individuals in custody.”

An official from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit Massachusetts think tank that has pushed to end high-cost, for-profit phone plans inside American detention facilities, applauded Lawson Remer’s proposal.

“During a pandemic and a recession, these prices are literally keeping families apart,” spokeswoman Wanda Bertram said. “Making these calls free will no doubt come as a huge relief for everyone with a loved one in jail in San Diego.”

Mercado, 37, plans to testify against the jail phone charges at the Tuesday board meeting.

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