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L.A. County Sets Deadline to Make Jail Phones Free

After two years of nudges to prod the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to stop charging jail inmates and their families for phone calls, the county's Board of Supervisors delivered a sterner message: make the change by Dec. 1, the Los Angeles Times reports. “The family members who have loved ones in our jails I don’t think can wait any longer,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion with Supervisor Holly Mitchell. The policy change comes amid growing pressure from advocates and attorneys who have accused the county of extorting the inmates it’s locked up with steep prices they have no choice but to pay and follows in the the footsteps of other big California counties including San Francisco and San Diego.

It’s the third motion the board has passed in two years meant to inch the county closer to making phone calls free across all county jails. The other two motions both went through in 2021, when supervisors asked the Chief Executive Office to explore how much it would cost and what funding source should cover it. As in other California counties, the millions of dollars Los Angeles pulls in each year from jail phone calls goes back to the Sheriff’s Department. Under state law, it has to be deposited in the department’s Inmate Welfare Fund, which is supposed to be used mainly for the benefit and education of inmates. In April, lawyers targeting the price of phone calls and commissary items in jails across the state sued several counties — including Los Angeles — over what they alleged amounted to an unlawful tax levied on the county’s poorest residents. The lawsuit also alleged the money has been spent on “general jails issues,” including salaries and office furniture, rather than services that benefit inmates. Nationally, the average jail charges about $3 for a 15-minute phone call, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In California that figure is slightly lower, around $2 per call — still an impossible cost for some inmates and their families, who are disproportionately poor and disproportionately people of color. The supervisors all signaled this week that they felt it was the county’s duty to shoulder the burden of these calls. According to Fesia Davenport, the county’s chief executive, that burden could be in the ballpark of $30 million.


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