In March of 2012, Jason Kelly was sent to San Francisco County Jail. Two months later, his first and only child was born. Father and son have never met, not even through the thick glass partition of the CJ-4 visitation room. Still, Kelly believes his son knows the sound of his father's voice because Kelly calls home as often as he can.
Kelly estimates he spent the maximum allowable $110 per week on phone privileges using both his personal savings and money borrowed from relatives. Over time, he has reined in his spending to about $100 per month, which buys him roughly one short call every other day.
That's the issue facing city supervisors today: inmates are being gouged for phone calls at the San Francisco Jail, says Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
The whole point is for inmates to maintain a close bond to their families while incarcerated. Otherwise, the rehabilitation process might not be as successful. That's why Mirkarimi has asked the Board of Supervisors to reconsider a new phone plan that, among other things, significantly cuts the cost of phone calls for county inmates.
According to Kelly, the system rips off inmates in more ways than one: per-minute rates are high, phone cards purchased at the jail commissary are marked up 5 percent above their actual value, and exorbitant fees are often deducted when funds are prepaid from the outside. What's more, calls drop all the time -- and there's a $3 surcharge for redialing.
"Even if the phone doesn't connect, I'll hear it click. Then I've got to call back and that's another $3 right there," said Kelly. "If it's silent for too long, it hangs up automatically."
As a monopoly provider, however, Global Tel*Link doesn't need to offer reliable service to keep its client base. Last fiscal year, phone calls generated roughly $1.2 million in gross revenue.
Kelly has lodged several formal complaints, which have been met with the same response: Global Tel*Link refuses to guarantee calls made to cell phones, saying there's the possibility a signal was lost on other end, Kelly said. He has never received a refund for fees to reconnect after a call was dropped, even if the disconnection occurred between two landlines.
Mirkarimi is proposing an amendment to the city's contract with Global Tel*Link, now in its final year, which would reduce the average cost for a 15-minute call from $4.45 to $2.75 within San Francisco, $5.05 to $4.05 within the Bay Area, and $13.35 to $4.05 within California.
The Sheriff's Department predicts that lower prices will increase call volume by 20 percent. A projected loss in revenue will be offset somewhat by that increased usage, which is good news for the city as it makes commission off the inmate calls.
As mandated by state law, those commissions, plus an annual lump-sum payment made by Global Tel*Link are deposited into an Inmate Welfare Fund which pays for programs, including parenting classes, victim restoration meetings, and prisoner legal services for people in custody.
Those in favor of amending the phone contract argue that the city's most disadvantaged and the inmates' families should no longer get squeezed to foot the bill for rehabilitation that's essentially taxpayers' responsibility.
"I've seen many families essentially go bankrupt. They talk on collect calls and then they'll get this huge bill for thousands of dollars and the family then becomes subject to debt collectors," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "It's extremely unfortunate because studies have shown that family contacts... are critical in being able to lead productive lives once they leave the criminal justice system."
According to Adachi, 80 percent of people charged with crimes in San Francisco are indigent. While calls to the Public Defender's office are free, inmates with private counsel face the same prohibitive costs when consulting attorneys on their cases.
While he supports the Sheriff's initiative to reduce rates, Adachi hopes for even deeper reform. "I would like to see a ban against charging a commission on these phone calls. I don't think jail programs should be paid for by the inmates. There's something that just doesn't sit quite right about that practice," said Adachi.
Supervisor London Breed called the system "robbery" after the Sheriff's presentation to the Government Audit & Oversight Committee, which she chairs. "I'd like to see the local calls [82 percent of all calls generated] be completely free," Breed added.
If the contract amendment is approved by the Board of Supervisors today, annual phone-related payments into the Inmate Welfare Fund are projected to decrease from $841,868 to $688,090, according to the Sheriff's Department.
"This is the critical delta in the discussion," said Mirkarimi. "If we are, as a city, committed to this goal [of reducing recidivism], we should be able to prepare programs without bleeding the family and inmates to pay for them."