California cuts cost of state inmate phone calls, will expand prisoners’ access to tablets

California

The cost for California state prisoners to call a loved one is dropping significantly after the company profiting off the calls agreed to charge less, state officials announced Monday.

Changes under the state’s new six-year contract with Global Tel*Link Corp., known as GTL, are expected to save incarcerated people and their families more than $17 million a year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a news release.

The agreement also expands inmates’ access to tablets and computer kiosks that will allow them to communicate with family, including via video and email.

Starting March 19, phone calls anywhere within the U.S. will cost 2.5 cents per minute — a reduction of 5.1 cents a minute for calls within California, and 18.5 cents per minute for calls from other states.

The rate is capped at 37.5 cents for a 15-minute phone call — the maximum time allotted — anywhere within the U.S.

International calls will now cost 7 cents per minute, down from 75 cents a minute.

That puts the cap at $1.05 for an international call, when they had cost upwards of $20, said Karen McDaniel, executive director of Menifee-based prison reform nonprofit Place4Grace.

“It wasn’t long ago when the cost of phone calls was just prohibitive,” said McDaniel, whose husband is incarcerated. “Literally, we as families had to choose between ‘are we going to have phone calls, or are we going to have milk?’”

GTL’s phone rates were the subject of a series of class-action lawsuits filed against several California counties alleging the fees were excessive and caused families to be “held hostage,” according to the East Bay Times.

GTL had also been charging $3 to set up an account to make calls, but that fee has been eliminated, officials said.

Calls to the state’s youth prisons will remain free.  

All inmates will also start getting 15 minutes of free phone calls every two weeks. The calls will be made using a PIN; inmates at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla began setting their personal identification numbers up last week, and all inmates will be set up by March 18, according to CDCR.

However, the two free calling days per month the state began offering during the COVID-19 pandemic will be phased out after March.

Expanded tablet access also represents a “huge” shift that prison reform groups had long advocated for, McDaniel said.

A pilot program rolled out a few years back at the state women’s prison showed families with access to a tablet thrived, according to McDaniel.

“I have a 14- and a 16-year-old, and I can tell you that if they were able to have email access with their father, their mental health would look much different right now,” she said. “Their school grades would look much different. Relationships between mothers and their children, and husbands and wives, all of these relationships would look much different.”

The expansion of tablet and kiosk access will roll out “in the coming weeks and months,” according to the CDCR release.

The cost of communication from those devices will also drop, from 30 cents a message to 5 cents, officials said.

The state is continuing to use Webex to offer online video visits, and the tablets will be used to expand availability, as the calls are currently placed from a limited number of stations in visiting rooms.

Inmates will get 15 minutes of free video calls every two weeks, and after that the calls will cost 20 cents per minute, officials said.

The state says prisoners will also be able to use the technology to access “educational, vocational and therapeutic content, as well as rehabilitative programs and activities, such as knowledge-based games and books.”

Officials say all activity on the devices will be closely monitored.

CDCR plans to release more details on kiosk and tablet offerings as the services come online.

Meanwhile, advocates are continuing to push for further inmate visitation reforms with AB 990, a bill introduced last month in the state legislature by Assemblymember Rob Bonta of Alameda.

Known as the 2021 Family Unity Bill, the measure seeks to extend visitation hours and allow for bedside visits with terminally ill inmates, among other changes, McDaniel said.

“It’s not acceptable for any human being to die alone. And it’s not acceptable for families to be further traumatized,” she said. “None of us committed a crime.”

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