California inmates granted free calls following halted visitations amid coronavirus fears

California
Inmates are seen at a Los Angeles County jail in this undated photo. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Inmates are seen at a Los Angeles County jail in this undated photo. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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Inmates will be able to connect with their families through free phone calls after visitations were temporarily banned last week to curb spread of the novel coronavirus, officials announced Wednesday.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will implement the measure, which also includes reduced prices for electronic messaging services, according to Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, whose district includes parts of South Los Angeles.

“I am pleased to announce the CDCR has worked with phone and email providers to enable access to calls and emails between families and those incarcerated,” Jones-Sawyer, chair of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, said.

The department made arrangements with Global Tel Link to provide an unlimited number of free phone calls for inmates until the end of April. A separate agreement was reached with JPay, an electronic message service provider, to offer reduced prices for those able to pay, and free services for those who cannot afford the reduced prices.

Families can communicate with incarcerated relatives through these services three days a week, on April 1 and 2, April 7 to 9, April 14 to 16, April 21 to 23 and April 28 to 30.

“Last week I participated in a web chat and heard from incarcerated individuals about the mental toll that isolation can take,” Jones-Sawyer said. “Mental health and wellness are parts of the COVID-19 response that must not be taken lightly and I am proud of the work CDCR has done to ensure those incarcerated are able to connect with their families and loved ones during this time.”

The move comes after the state announced plans Tuesday to release up to 3,500 inmates to free up space in prisons as a precaution related to coronavirus outbreaks. Inmates who are being released were due to be paroled in the next two months, officials said.

There are eight confirmed cases in the state’s prison population, along with 27 CDCR employees, according to the California Department of Public Health’s online tracker.

Conditions inside California jails have raised concern among inmates and civil rights advocates, who say that social distancing is impossible in crowded facilities, with beds often 3 feet apart. Cleaning supplies, including soap, are not always readily available either.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also halted intakes from jails last week in order to lower the prison population by about 3,000 inmates in the next 30 days.

An inmate at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A. and four people who work in L.A. County jails tested positive for the coronavirus Monday.

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