Following impassioned testimony from more than a dozen advocates for incarcerated people and their families, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to come up with a plan that would ban expensive collect calls and markups on commissary items in jails and juvenile detention facilities.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who authored the motion, said the vote recognizes the impact incarceration has had on communities of color during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more than a million calls were made from L.A. County jails — at a cost of $20 million to the families and friends of the incarcerated.
“Communication with families and friends is not only vital for a person who is incarcerated, but it has been shown that it provides a major connection and a large role in helping in someone’s success upon release and reentry,” Solis said at the virtual supervisors’ meeting. “The idea of profiting off families who may still be struggling is not fair, in my opinion, or equitable — and we need to change that.”
Collect calls from Los Angeles County detention facilities cost 25 cents a minute, and over the course of a months-long stint in a juvenile hall or jail, families often rack up hundreds of dollars in charges simply to stay in touch with their loved ones.
Kent Mendoza, advocacy and community organization manager with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said his mother was unemployed while he was incarcerated at L.A. County juvenile detention facilities and jails growing up. She had to borrow money to afford phone conversations that offered him a lifeline while he was locked up.
“While incarcerated, the only thing that keeps many of us going and staying hopeful is our family,” Mendoza said. “Staying in communication with them is crucial to us, especially when we’re locked up in a hostile and dehumanizing environment like jail.”
While eliminating the fees would provide relief to many families, a portion of the funds from commissary sales and collect phone calls goes into an Inmate Welfare Fund, which pays for rehabilitative programming. Currently, the probation department receives $59,000 a year from phone calls from juvenile detention facilities, and the Sheriff’s Department nets $15 million.
The Inmate Welfare Fund also receives funding from items sold in jails like snacks, toothpaste and mouthwash. Advocates say the markups on these items are unfair: A 4-ounce bag of Keefe instant coffee is $7.47, a more than 100% markup on the cost. Incarcerated people must pay $2.16 for a container of toothpaste, but it costs the Sheriff’s Department just $1.02.
“I think that most people, quite frankly, who aren’t touched by the system, have no idea that in jail you have to buy your own basic toiletries,” said Supervisor Holly Mitchell.
Last year, the California Legislature passed a bill authored by Mitchell — a former state senator — that would have banned such fees statewide, and limited the amount that could be charged for commissary items. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who expressed concerns the bill would have “the unintended consequence of reducing important rehabilitative and educational programming.”
But on Tuesday, Angelique Evans of the Young Women’s Freedom Center said pushing to end excessive fees in lockups is a necessary move. Roughly 85% of people in L.A. County’s jails are Black or Latino, as are 93% of young people held in juvenile halls and detention camps.
“This is one of the best investments that L.A. County can make in the health, wealth and safety of low-income Black and brown communities,” Evans said. “L.A. County should be negotiating harder for a better contract, instead of continuing to let greedy corporations exploit L.A. families for profits.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors also approved a motion to create a basic income pilot program. It would offer $1,000 a month for three years to 1,000 county residents, including women released from lockups, transition-age youth and survivors of domestic violence. The move follows dozens of similar projects in recent months, including a basic income project in the City of Los Angeles and one proposed by Gov. Newsom in his revised budget plan last week.
“Creating an equitable recovery from COVID-19 requires intentional investments in our most vulnerable communities to help end the symptoms of poverty, such as homelessness that have worsened due to the pandemic,” Mitchell stated in a press release.
A statement released by Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton who helped launch one of the first basic income projects in the country in 2019, also hailed L.A. County's effort.
“In Stockton, we found that our guaranteed income program participants were twice as likely to find full-time work compared to non-participants,” Tubbs stated. “We know that guaranteed income will not replace work, but it will allow people the freedom to choose more stable jobs.”