Collect calls from all Los Angeles County jails and juvenile detention facilities would be free, and commissary items like deodorant and snacks would be reasonably priced, under a proposal being considered Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
“Profiting off families who have been hit the hardest during COVID-19 and have been trying to survive pre-pandemic doesn’t seem fair, equitable, or moral,” reads the motion authored by Supervisor Hilda Solis.
The supervisor’s proposal would follow the lead of three other California counties that have halted the collection of fees that fall heavily on the families of incarcerated people, who are overwhelmingly low-income and come from Black and brown communities. The change would apply to the county’s two juvenile halls, five camps and nine adult jails overseen by the Sheriff’s Department.
County supervisors will also consider eliminating high markups on food and hygiene items sold in jails, amid concerns over the law enforcement agency’s poor oversight of the money collected from commissary sales.
According to research by the Bay Area-based Young Women’s Freedom Center and the Children’s Defense Fund – California, the cost of a 15-minute phone call from a juvenile detention facility varies widely across the state. In Los Angeles, it costs $3.75, while in San Benito County, the cost runs as high as $13.65.
“I had to choose between putting my son in sports or paying for my daughter’s phone bill,” a mother identified as Angelica whose child was recently released from a Los Angeles juvenile hall told the researchers. “I allowed my daughter to call home as much as she wanted because I knew she needed to hear my voice, so my bill was very high.”
Dominique Nong, director of youth justice policy for Children’s Defense Fund – California, said the costs can add up quickly for low-income families — forcing some to make the “excruciating decisions” of staying in touch with locked-up loved ones or paying for necessities like utility bills. When calls are unaffordable, the lack of contact can cause deep harm.
“Every hour locked up does unimaginable trauma to a young person,” Nong said. “And when we strip away their ability to communicate with the outside world, it only increases the harm that we’re doing to them and their families.”
Collect calls from Los Angeles County detention facilities cost 25 cents a minute. And while eliminating those fees would help inmates’ families who have to pay for them, there are downsides to eliminating the revenue stream. Under the current system, a portion of the funds from phone calls and commissary go into an Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF), which pays for rehabilitative programming.
Supervisors have asked for county staff to study the impact of the loss of those funds, which amounts to $15 million a year or more for the Sheriff’s Department. The probation department receives at least $59,000 a year from calls from juvenile halls and camps, though it says free communication methods such as video conferencing visits are now being offered.
While the Inmate Welfare Fund benefits from phone calls and commissary, advocates say profits from markups on the sale of snacks, toothpaste, mouthwash, shorts, greeting cards and other items are unjust. The cost of a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, for example, is $5.33, though it costs the Sheriff’s Department just $2.51. A 3.2-ounce bar of Irish Spring soap is marked up by 47%.
“The costs of and profits from these items, in essence, shift the cost of incarceration and ‘inmate programming’ to incarcerated people and their families, which ultimately benefit private companies, such as Keefe Commissary Network, the current vendor of the county jails’ commissary items,” the motion being considered Tuesday reads.
County supervisors are also concerned about how the Sheriff’s Department is spending the money collected from commissary items, and have asked for a better accounting. A report last month by L.A. County Auditor-Controller Arlene Barrera found that “the Sheriff appears to spend a lower percentage of their IWF revenue on inmate programs, compared with the other local counties reviewed.”
Money collected from phone calls falls disproportionately on poor families of color, who have been devastated by coronavirus infections and unemployment. About 85% of people in L.A. County’s jails are Black or Latino, while the number is even higher — 93% — in juvenile halls and camps run by the probation department.
With in-person visitation banned or severely limited last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, calls made from lockups surged, according to the motion submitted by Supervisor Solis. Incarcerated people made more than one million phone calls from L.A. County jails last year, accounting for $20 million in revenue — about a third more than usual.
Last summer, San Francisco County scrapped fees for phone calls and markups on the cost of items in its jail commissaries, following a similar move in New York City in 2018. In March, San Diego County also banned fees for phone calls in its juvenile detention centers and jails.
The issue has also been taken up by state lawmakers. Last year, the California Legislature passed a bill authored by former state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D) — now an L.A. county supervisor — that would have banned such fees statewide, while limiting the amount of money that could be charged for commissary items.
The bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who pointed to issues now being considered in Los Angeles County — that the loss of revenue can deplete programming paid for through Inmate Welfare Funds. “I am concerned it will have the unintended consequence of reducing important rehabilitative and educational programming for individuals in custody,” the governor wrote in his veto message.
For an East L.A. mother of a teen who spent the pandemic locked up in juvenile detention facilities, the separation from her son was a “devastating” experience.
“It’s just really sad and lonely,” said the mom, who The Imprint is not naming because of the sensitive nature of her family’s involvement with the juvenile justice system. “Because you don’t know anything about how they’re feeling or any updates when the virus was hitting us hard.”
For the more than seven months her son spent in Central Juvenile Hall, the mother said that her family racked up more than $1,000 in collect-call fees to stay in touch with him. Later, when he was sent to a juvenile detention camp, video-chat calls were free, but they were often cancelled, and were only allowed for 15 minutes on weekends.
The most terrifying period of her son’s incarceration came last year, when he contracted COVID-19 and she was unable to speak to him while he was in medical isolation for two weeks.
“As a mother, that was the worst thing, not being able to take care of your son when he’s sick, or know how he’s doing,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure he was okay.”