California prisoners will be able to make free phone calls to family and friends effective Jan. 1, 2023.
That is thanks to SB 1008, the Keep Families Connected Act, signed into law Sept. 29 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
California families spend an estimated $68.2 million every year for phone calls with the incarcerated, said Worth Rises, a nonprofit working to dismantle the prison industry.
“The ability to call your partner, children or friends to instantly share your joys or sadness is something most of us take for granted,” said the author of the bill, Sen. Josh Becker (D-Peninsula). Phone contact is strictly controlled and expensive, he added.
Becker visited San Quentin’s Garden Chapel in August to share his new bill with graduates of the Guiding Rage into Power group, a program that helps prisoners put its name into practice.
“Now that you’ve done your job, I need to do my job,” Becker told the SQ audience. “I have a bill this year to have free prison phone calls. We should not be charging you by the minute, by the picture, by the email, by the video calls.”
This bill is designed to prohibit a county, city, or state agency from receiving revenue for the provision
of communication services to persons in its custody. The state will foot the bill for any contracted service provider of phone calls in prison. It is not yet clear how cities or counties will respond to Becker’s bill.
According to the senator, “predatory phone companies make an estimated $1.4 billion in the prison telecom industry.”
Worth Rises estimates one in three families fall into debt trying to remain in contact with loved ones. Eighty-seven percent of the burden falls on women, particularly women of color, according to the nonprofit.
“The fact is, most people are going to get out and we want them to be connected with their loved ones,” Becker told the rehabilitation group’s graduates and the Daily Journal. “We want to maintain these bonds so when they get out they have that support network and they are less likely to go back into our prisons, go back into our jails.”
California has the highest number of prisoners serving life sentences in the country, three times as many as Texas, though Texas is 25% larger geographically, Becker said.
As of August 2022, there are 25,381 prisoners serving life sentences in California, according to CDCR’s Office of Research.
This bill requires the Public Utilities Commission to establish service quality standards for calling services provided to incarcerated persons. Such standards are to be adhered to by communication service providers rendering services to state or local correctional or detention facilities.
California is now the second state to make phone calls free in prisons. Connecticut was the first to do so in July 2022.
New York became the first major U.S. city to provide free phone calls for incarcerated people, followed by San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Massachusetts and Kentucky are now pushing for the same legislation. Other states are starting to follow suit. There is also a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The success of this bill, according to Becker, was largely due to impacted families and community members and people who suffered from isolation while in state prison.
Becker’s visit to San Quentin was to make clear he wanted to provide free family communication to anyone participating in rehabilitation programs and doing the right thing while in prison.
“Why am I here?” Becker stood up and asked the San Quentin program’s graduates while talking about his new bill. “I’m here because of all of you. And I know it wasn’t easy; this is tough work. But as Nelson Mandela use to say, ‘It seems impossible until it’s done.’”