On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that makes phone calls from California’s prisons free of charge. The new law places the cost of calls not on incarcerated people — or the people receiving calls from them — but on the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
California is the second state after Connecticut and the biggest state by far to institute such a law, which is a direct shot at the $1.4 billion prison telecom industry. For years prison telecom companies have maintained rates that “can be unjustly and unreasonably high, thereby impeding the ability of inmates and their loved ones to maintain vital connections,” the FCC said in 2020.
Prison reform advocates argue the new California law will have a hugely positive impact on the families of incarcerated people in California — and potentially other states that follow California's lead.
"From a public policy perspective, we should be wanting people to stay connected to their social networks, to their families, to be able to start looking for employment if they are close to getting out," said state Sen. Josh Becker, who sponsored the bill, SB 1008. "But we have a very perverse system, which inhibits that and actually throws many families into debt."
For years, the high cost of prison phone calls has sapped money from low-income families with incarcerated loved ones. According to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 34% of families go into debt in their attempt to maintain contact with loved ones inside through phone calls and visitations. The impact is disproportionately felt by women of color, because of the corresponding disproportionate number of men of color in America’s prisons.
Now, with the governor's blessing, "the simple cost of a call is never going to impair their ability to tell their children they love them or help their partner problem-solve a parenting situation,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a prison reform organization, which was a key player in advocating for the bill.
The new law covers the 93,000 incarcerated people in the state's prison system, and Becker hopes future legislation will extend free calls into California's city and county jails, as well.
In addition to making calls free to users, the law prohibits local agencies from “receiving revenue for the provision of communication services to persons in its custody." The law also charges the state’s utility commission with ensuring service does not fall below standard, now that calls are free. Proponents of the law say the policy change will cost California about $12 million annually, but that is a small fraction of the $14.2 billion budget for the state’s corrections department.
In recent years, the Federal Communications Commission has tried to clamp down on the astronomical costs charged by prison telecom providers including slashing fees and capping rates at 21 cents per minute for interstate calls in 2013. More recently, the FCC adopted a rule to prevent prison phone companies from seizing pre-paid funds from users, after one prison telecom giant, GTL, was found to have seized $121 million in customer funds. Other local governments have notched their own victories in the fight against sky-high prison call rates. In 2019, New York became the first major city jail system to make calls free. In 2020, San Francisco also made phone calls from its jails free and announced a policy change that would "permanently stop generating revenue from incarcerated people and their families through phone calls."
But advocates are hopeful that California's law will set an example for other state governments, because of the sheer size of its prison population. “California has a much bigger system, and what it does matters to the rest of the corrections community,” Tylek said. “It will be a huge trendsetter for everyone else.”