It is striking to remember that not too long ago there was what felt like a crusade to keep prisoners isolated from the outside world. For example, in the past, phone companies like GTL and Securus raised phone rates so high that the companies were accused of trying to break bonds between many incarcerated people and their families. Only a chosen few could afford to foot the bill. According to Worth Rises, a nonprofit organization, companies “drained the pockets of poor Black and Brown families, mostly women, across the country, all the while, earning billions in profits.”
Senate Bill 1008, referred to as the Keep Families Connected Act, was “designed to eliminate the fees that have helped fuel a $1.4 billion dollar prison telecom industry and have put one in three American families into debt,” according to Worth Rises. Governor Gavin Newsom agreed, signing the bill into law in 2022.
I think back to how, early in my incarceration, I would call home every day. But daily phone calls soon became weekly, then once a month, and finally, none at all. I began to avoid phones because it was a
reminder that my family was forced to stop accepting my calls. They could no longer afford to pay the bill. I understood, but it still felt like I wasn’t loved.
Many incarcerated people have resorted to other ways of communicating with families by getting illegal landlines or buying illegal cell phones. A cell phone could easily net a smuggler up to $2,000 depending
on the prisoner’s level of desperation. Prison officials began to use cellphone sniffing dogs to track these phones down.
Officials contended that the phones were being used to order murders, drugs, extortion, gang hits, and escape plots. Prison security squads found tens of thousands of illegal cell phones in California prison cells. But many prisoners say that these phones were not being used to commit crimes, but rather, to keep connected with family.
Since the pandemic began in 2020, lawmakers across the country have begun to make family connection a little easier. New York City and San Francisco’s jails were among the first to make phone calls free. San Diego and Los Angeles followed. Connecticut was the first state to make phone calls free for incarcerated people at the beginning of the pandemic. And now, California is following suit.
Research shows that incarcerated people who are able to keep in frequent contact with their loved ones are more successful re-entering society than those who have limited or no contact. Since 2021, California prisons have been contracting with GTL to provide free tablets to the incarcerated to make phone calls, emails and video calls.
As I walk along the phone lines at SQSP, I bump into men waiting for their turn to talk. I can hear the sounds of happy voices living vicariously through their families, sharing memories, celebrating childhood
developmental milestones, birthdays, graduations, new jobs and marriages. It is important that this trend continue so that people in custody can return home to a loving and healthy family. This June, tablets are expected to arrive here at San Quentin, which could drastically change the landscape of communication for prison residents.