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A pay phone
Photo by John-Paul Henry on Unsplash

Earlier this year, a new law took effect in California that provides free phone calls to incarcerated people and prohibits agencies from profiting from communications services.

Initial reactions to the change were mixed inside California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, showing the deep skepticism that exists towards the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Some people said they were not going to believe it until it happened, while others expressed concerns about whether the prison would limit their ability to make phone calls now that calls were free.

Phone calls in California prisons have a 15-minute limit per session. Before the new law, each person was given 75 free minutes, or five free calls, every two weeks. Some people budgeted their 75 minutes to five- to 10-minute sessions so they could make calls more frequently.

“I don’t know if these changes mean I will be able to make the same amount of calls as I do now,” said one person.

Others with families outside of the country worried about whether international calls would still be allowed.

The new law was passed in September 2022 as part of a national movement that recognizes that ties to family and community play a major role in a person’s success after prison. Previously, private corporations contracting with the corrections department charged exorbitant per-minute prices, putting families under financial strain.

For example, in 2007, a 15-minute local phone call (within the same area code of the prison’s location) cost $3.75. Calls to numbers outside of a local area code within California cost $6.20. Out-of-state calls inside the United States cost $17.30. There had been no international calling available.

According to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 1 in 3 families with an incarcerated loved one has gone into debt over the cost of communication and visits, and 87% of those carrying these costs have been women, and women of color in particular.

Nationally, correctional communications companies have an annual revenue of $1.4 billion, according to Worth Rises, a nonprofit advocacy group based in New York.

Helped in part by an increase in awareness, call prices steadily decreased in California. In 2021, phone calls from California prisons cost 37.5 cents for a 15-minute phone call to anywhere in the United States. A 15-minute international call could be made for $1.05.

On New Year’s Day, residents at my prison successfully made their free phone calls under the new program. They were glad to find that the process remained unchanged, even for calls to other countries. People no longer had to worry about budgeting their minutes.

Many people reported that the law has already made a difference. They said their families were happy to no longer have to set aside money to communicate with their loved ones. Even happier were those families who couldn’t afford to pay for calls and had to rely on the 75-minutes-free lifeline.

“This has been a blessing,” said one resident. “I’m excited to be able to continue to connect to loved ones I haven’t talked to in a long time without worrying whether there was money on their prepaid accounts. I’m grateful.”

Cost of a 15-Minute Call From an Adult Correctional Institution in California

YearLocal (same area code)InterLATA (within CA)Interstate (within US)International
2013-19$1.44$2.025$3.75 (collect)
$3.15 (prepaid)
7/19/2019 to 12/30/2020$1.23$1.23$3.15$11.25
* Youth in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice will continue to receive free calls.
Source: “Free Calls: Frequently Asked Questions,” December 2022, California Office of Public and Employee Communications

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

JC Rodriguez is a writer, poet, certified community coach and certified mediator incarcerated in California. They hold two college degrees (marketing, general business) and are a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. They are currently pursuing a paralegal certificate and serve as a jailhouse lawyer member of the National Lawyers Guild. Rodriguez is also an executive coaching team member and regular contributor to Getting Out by Going In (GOGI), a Southern California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering individuals.