Growing up, Blossom Sergejev was lucky if she talked to her mother once a week. Usually it was once a month. Even then their conversations ended almost as soon as they started. She and her brother and sister had a timer to make sure all three got their fair share of their mother’s time – five minutes each.
“There was no small talk on those calls, and it wasn’t at all light-hearted,” Sergejev says. “We got down to the grit of what was going on.”
They simply couldn’t afford to talk longer, not with rates of approximately $15 for a 15-minute call from jail, remembers their mother Amika Mota, who was incarcerated for several years starting in 2008. Not that Sergejev grasped the reasons as a 6-year-old.
“I was a little girl, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t talk to my mom,” Sergejev, now 19, says through tears. “I just remember feeling alone all the time.”
Having so little time to talk through heavy matters wasn’t easy, Sergeyev recalls. “I remember when I became a young woman … I had my first period and I couldn’t talk to my mom,” Sergejev says. “I had five minutes for her to tell me what the heck was going on.”
Years after Mota’s release, the pain of lost contact still haunts the family, who now live in Concord. It’s a pain shared by hundreds of thousands of Californians whose loved ones are locked up and who pay big bucks to stay in touch. A billion-dollar prison telecom industry profits from their desperation to stay connected.
The California Public Utilities Commission – which has authority to regulate this industry – has scheduled its first public hearings on April 28 and 29 to explore significantly lowering the cost of phone calls for incarcerated Californians and their families. The commission is right to take a hard look at this extractive practice, which does far more harm than good.
Sky high prices for phone calls from incarcerated people are common across the country. Jail and youth lockups often receive signing bonuses of six figures or more to contract with one of three corporations that dominate the prison telecom industry. In turn, jails get a cut of the profits to fund programs and operations, while inflicting collateral damage: Many families are forced to choose between limiting contact with their loved ones and paying unfair costs for phone calls.
Prices vary wildly across California: a 15-minute phone call to someone locked up in a Lassen County jail in Northeastern California costs $17; it’s $3.47 to someone in an Alameda County jail; or $3.75 if your child is in a youth lockup in Los Angeles County. Even the lower rates can quickly sap people with limited resources, a population disproportionately present in the criminal justice system.
Indeed, one in three families goes into debt staying in touch with an incarcerated loved one, and research shows it’s most often low-income women of color who end up saddled by the bills. Meanwhile prison telecom corporations rack up profits by squeezing payments from mothers, grandmothers and family members, who’ve committed no crime except wanting to stay in touch with a loved one.
The tide, however, is turning. If change does occur, it’s because of people like Mota, who never got over not being able to talk to her children. After serving seven years for vehicular manslaughter, Mota joined the Young Women’s Freedom Center and set out on a mission to make phone calls free for incarcerated people and their families in California.
First stop: San Francisco. A few years ago, it cost $300 over the 70-day average jail stay to talk twice a day to someone incarcerated in the San Francisco jail.
Mota and people from community organizations like All of Us or None and Young Community Developers brought people to City Hall to describe their experiences. Mothers revealed having to choose between buying groceries or staying in touch with incarcerated sons. Others talked about being on the brink of release from jail, but not being able to pay for calls to tell their family, or look for a job or a place to live.
Mota and others presented research that showed that the more people stay in touch with their families while inside, the better they do when they get out. Re-entry outcomes are better and recidivism rates are lower. In other words, the pursuit of short-term profits from phone calls is the ultimate pennywise, pound-foolish behavior. The jail makes a buck, but we all pay a far steeper price when people cycle back into custody.
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Sheriff Paul Miyamoto and Mayor London Breed were convinced. Last August, San Francisco became the first California county to make jail phone calls free. Overnight, calls shot up 40%, and incarcerated people are now 80% more in touch with their families, according to data analyzed by my office.
The sheriff’s office anecdotally sees other benefits too. It may be that people are simply not as on edge when they can talk to their families every day. That’s good for everyone.
Since San Francisco jail phone calls became free, statewide momentum for similar reform has picked up. San Diego County recently committed to make all jail phone calls free. And California prisons dropped their phone rates to 37 cents for a 15-minute call.
Now it’s the California Public Utilities Commission’s turn to put people before profits to lift this burden off desperate families across the state. If the CPUC significantly lowers prices for families, it will make it easier for state and local officials to do what San Francisco and San Diego did – make the phone calls free.
The CPUC deserves a big shout out for setting up a toll free phone number for incarcerated people to call in to the hearing for free, likely a first for California.
At the hearing, the commission will also surely hear from sheriffs who will say that they need the money phone calls provide to pay for important programs.
It’s not a convincing argument. However important any program may be, it should not be funded by gouging incarcerated people’s families. In 2021, when phone calls for the rest of us cost next to nothing, the people least able to pay for them should not be the ones paying the most, especially when it hurts us all in the long run.
Mota, a mother who spent years away from her family, knows this is especially true for children like her own. Kids with the fewest resources have the biggest need to talk to their incarcerated parents. And the more these parents stay in touch with their families, the better they’ll do when they get out.
“What happens on those phone calls is sacred business, between parents and children,” Mota says. “No children should have to go through what my children went through.”
Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project in the treasurer’s office of the city and county of San Francisco and is a fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program, Overcharged2021@gmail.com.