PD Editorial: Stop gouging inmates for phone calls at Sonoma County Jail

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

If a primary goal of incarceration is to prepare inmates to succeed when they return to society, the Sonoma County Jail shouldn’t price gouge their phone calls and commissary shopping. A county civil grand jury recently revealed the financial exploitation of inmates and their families.

Inflated commissary costs are straightforward markups. Incarcerated people at Sonoma County’s Main Adult Detention Facility pay up to 300% more for simple things like ramen noodles than consumers in a grocery store. That’s a lot, but it isn’t as harmful as the phone call fees.

The Sheriff’s Office contracts with a private phone provider, Global Tel Link, which charges 7 cents per minute for a 90-minute phone card. Then the sheriff tacks on more than 200% in fees. Inmates wind up paying $20 for a 90-minute phone card — 22 cents per minute. Family and friends of inmates can’t avoid markups, either. The Sheriff’s Office imposes a 70% commission on them when they deposit phone credits.

Those sorts of costs add up quickly. Inmates don’t typically come from the most outstanding economic circumstances. If they or their families don’t have the resources, they don’t get to make the calls.

It’s tempting to shrug and say, “They’re in jail. They shouldn’t expect things to be easy.” If only it were that simple.

More than half of the people in the jail are awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. There is no justice in exploiting the presumed innocent.

Things got worse in the past year, too. During the pandemic, visitation was put on hold. That left phone and video calls as the only way inmates can keep in touch with their family on the outside. Without communication, valuable family and social networks deteriorate. Then, when they get out, they lack the human infrastructure to help them succeed rather than slip back into crime.

Under state law, revenue from phone calls and commissary sales goes into a fund that pays for inmate welfare. The fund in Sonoma County has grown to $1.6 million, and the grand jury found that its expenditures don’t all clearly go to welfare. The jury identified vague line items and money used for staff salaries.

“The grand jury concludes that our jail should not be a profit generating entity,” the report bluntly states. The report also notes that the California Public Utilities Commission could soon impose new restrictions on what jails may charge as “just and reasonable rates.”

Other communities have gone to low-cost communications or even no-cost calls for incarcerated people and their families. San Francisco pays a flat rate to the same provider Sonoma County’s jail uses and then charges inmates nothing. State and federal prisons charge a fraction of the Sonoma County rate, as little as 2.5 cents per minute.

To his credit, Sheriff Mark Essick told The Press Democrat that he isn’t opposed to changing the policies. First, he wants community buy-in and a plan to replace the lost revenue.

Fair enough. Essick and county supervisors should start building that support and looking for options to fill the gap. They also must ensure it all goes to programs that serve inmates. The Inmate Welfare Trust Fund takes in a little more than $1 million per year. That’s a small cost to treat inmates fairly and to give them the best chance of success upon their release.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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