Gavin Newsom Signs SB 1008, making phone calls from California prisons free


By Gibran Khalil

SACRAMENTO, CA – On Thursday Sept. 29, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 1008, making phone calls from California prisons free. Under this legislation, incarcerated people and the people who are being called will no longer be charged for calls made in prisons. Rather, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will cover those associated costs. California is now the second state to institute this policy after Connecticut.


Proponents of SB 1008 assert that the impacts of this kind of policy go a long way toward reducing the harm incarcerated people and their loved ones face. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has long sought to reduce rates for telephone calls in prisons across the nation, and in 2020 stated that “reducing the costs of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation.” 


In fact, phone calls from prison are notoriously expensive. A study from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights showed that 34% of families go into debt in the attempt to maintain contact with loved ones inside through phone calls and that the impact of this lack of contact is largely felt by women of color, due to the disproportionate incarceration of men of color. The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) has pushed the FCC for over twenty years to “provide relief from the exorbitant bills that prison phone companies charge just to stay in touch.”


Phone calls themselves funnel through the $1.4 billion prison telecomms industry, with an 83% market share owned by two giants in the industry: Securus and GlobalTelLink (GTL). A report from Worth Rises, another prison reform organization, details exactly how the duopolic structure of this industry works. The report outlines how corporations like Securus and GTL create contracts with correctional agencies across the nation to provide communication services for incarcerated people, including phone calls but also video conferencing, electronic messaging, and other services. Layered into these services are surveillance tools, where the correctional agencies record and store information, including the illegal recording of lawyer-client calls as found by the Intercept in 2015 and “voice print analysis to ‘identify terroristic threats’ by tracking voices” inside and out of prisons.  


The rise of the prison telecomms industry took place after the 1970s, when “tough on crime” stances led to an exponential increase in the prison population, resulting in a situation where the United States now houses around 2 million prisoners. This represents a 500% increase in the prison population in the last 40 years and demonstrates that even progressive states such as  California incarcerate people at more than double the rate as other United States international allies. With this huge increase in the prison population, a market to provide such telecommunication services was left behind and found lucrative by a variety of businesses. By the mid-1990s, 90% of correctional agencies had contracted with a for-profit provider, and by the early 2000s, it was private equity (PE) firms that had bought up the majority of the market. This has led to today’s large market share of the prison telecommunications industry by Securus and GTL, companies that have simply traded hands between large American PE firms. 


Both the duopoly of PE-owned Securus and GTL and correctional agencies aim to profit off of prison communications through a system of high charge rates and what is called kickback. The companies create massive contracts with correctional agencies across the nation, creating bundled contracts that manage all aspects of communication in prisons and jails. In return, the company allows correctional agencies to take a part of the revenue, sometimes as high as 90% of the total revenue of the exchange, made from each call or message that comes in; this phenomenon is known as kickback. Kickback allows companies to also charge extremely high rates for those who call their loved ones in prison, thereby maximizing profits for both the correctional agency and the company in question. Furthermore, these same companies tack on fees for the use of their technology in prisons. 


Two members of the Vera Institute of Justice who work directly with incarcerated individuals to foster more connection with their loved ones spoke on condition of anonymity about the harm such a duopoly can have, even when those individuals return home. They outlined how “Due to the lack of resources provided to incarcerated individuals and their families to rebuild scarred relationships – a direct result of long sentences, overcriminalization of BIPOC communities, and punitive carceral policies – returned citizens usually end up not having healthy family relationships once they return home.” From their experience, the separation of families through the prison system and its expensive phone calls is nothing new; in fact, it’s directly in line with how white supremacist settlers of the United States separated Indigenous and Black families to colonize the land we live on itself. Narratives about the “bad behavior” of these Black and Brown communities have been built up over multiple generations, and these narratives manifest themselves in our current prison industrial complex. Thus, even something seemingly simple such as free phone calls from prison can be “a way to oppose the tactic of family separation and stigmatization of entire communities,” while also helping family relationships repair and flourish. 

However, it took only until 2012 for the FCC to attempt to institute rulemaking on these extremely high call rates. While legislation such as SB 1008 is an important step in helping loved ones contact incarcerated people, legislation must also be made for jail systems, including in California. Senator Josh Becker, who sponsored SB 1008, hopes that “future legislation will extend free calls into California’s city and county jails” as “we have a very perverse system, which inhibits that and actually throws many families into debt.” In fact, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average cost of a 15-minute call from jail is over three times more than from state prisons, and in California, the average cost of a 15-minute call from a local jail is $5.70 (as of Nov. 2018). As the Vera Institute of Justice member staff mentioned further, free prison phone calls and the addition of free jail phone calls “not only decrease debt for families–families that already began at a deficit–but they also increase the likelihood that incarcerated folks will have a successful reentry once released.” This means that ultimately, as the PPI states, “taming the correctional phone market will require focusing on the areas where injustice is concentrated: Jails (rather than only prisons), fees (rather than only rates), and bundled contracts (rather than phone-only contracts).”      

Gibran is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science and Ethnic Studies. He is originally from the Los Angeles area, and enjoys watching and playing soccer, listening to music, and discovering new food spots in his free time

About The Author

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for