By Kelsey Kitzke
LOS ANGELES – California Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, whose district covers parts of Los Angeles, advocated for the expansion of cell phones in California state prisons in a video briefing for The Appeal, a journalistic organization covering the legal system’s impact on marginalized people.
In the wake of California state prison San Quentin’s COVID-19 outbreak—which has seen close to 1,200 diagnoses and 12 deaths—officials at the prison have suspended phone services for its incarcerated population.
Officials have said this is meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus; however, Kamlager derided the effects of the mandate in “stopping the flow of information from the outside in” on top of incarcerated peoples’ already “limited opportunities to communicate with folks on the outside.”
To combat this, Kamlager pushed the expansion of cell phone availability for people in California prisons. Kamlager outlined the importance of cell phones in prisons for three reasons: communicating with the outside, maintaining mental health, and cost.
Although cell phones are considered contraband items in many prisons and jails, it is quite common for cell phones to be secreted into prisons.
As Kamlager outlined, incarcerated people need access to open communication channels in order to contact their lawyers and legal advocates for updates and information on pending cases and legal actions.
They also need to stay in touch with family members and loved ones. Everyone needs to check up on the health and well-being of each other during the pandemic, Kamlager said, adding “to make sure they are okay, they are healthy, they are alive.”
As prisons across California set more limits to its incarcerated population in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, including suspending visitations and limited yard time for inmates, telephone communication becomes an even more essential tool for maintaining the mental health of inmates through necessary socialization, the lawmaker said.
Without it, Kamlager says, “we are on the verge of having a mental health explosion through our California prisons,” explaining studies have shown that frequent communication between inmates and people outside their prison lead to a dramatic drop in recidivism rates and greatly aids in overall community reintegration when prison sentences end.
Kamlager also cited the often prohibitive costs associated with in-prison phone services.
According to a 2018 study done by the Prison Policy Initiative, the average cost of a 15-minute phone call from a California state prison was $2.03. This is compared to an hourly wage of no more than 95 cents and as low as 8 cents. An expansion to cell phone usage, Kamlager implied—even after the pandemic subsides and phone service communications in state prisons resumes—is essential to a more equitable prison system.
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