By Lee Romney
Domingo Howard is a "single pops" to a 5-year-old girl he is raising by working part-time jobs. His 24-year-old son, meanwhile, landed in the San Francisco County Jail in January.
As "the only person" his son can count on, the two speak on the phone often, Howard said, but the costs of staying in touch have soared to as much as $400 a month, plunging the 42-year-old warehouse worker into debt.
"It's way out of control," he said. "It's a stress on me and the rest of my family _ to be able to keep up with just normal living and be able to be there for my son at the same time."
Howard's story is one that is echoing across the country, as state lawmakers and even the Federal Communications Commission move to take on an industry they say has long charged exorbitant calling rates to a captive audience of prison and jail inmates.
The steep charges are the result of a contracting system in which the companies pay "commissions" to correctional institutions _ in some cases to pay for inmate programs _ while charging fees to cover those costs, according to regulators, lawmakers and inmate advocates.
Now, San Francisco is taking steps to halt the practice _ one of the nation's first local jurisdictions to do so.
At San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi's urging, the Board of Supervisors last week voted unanimously to amend the county contract with Virginia-based GTL to dramatically reduce the cost of calls, which can burden inmates' families.
"We just decided to stop the bleeding of poor people," Mirkarimi said, noting that successful re-entry into society often depends on strong family ties.
The cost of a 15-minute collect in-state regional call, such as those to a neighboring county, will drop by 70 percent, to $4.05 from $13.35. A 15-minute collect local call will now cost $2.75 instead of $4.45 _ a 38 percent drop.
Earlier this year, the FCC capped the cost of interstate calls from correctional facilities between 21 and 25 cents per minute, and federal regulators are exploring whether to expand those efforts to in-state calls.
So far, most state efforts have focused on prisons, not local jails, like San Francisco's.
California and at least seven other states ban prisons from accepting commissions.
In a letter to the FCC last year, Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said the reduced rates arising from strict rules adopted in 2007 have contributed to "family reunification" and a dramatic reduction in "illicit cell phone use."
Verizon, which isn't in the corrections business, has weighed in against the practice, telling the FCC: "Forcing inmates' families to fund (inmate services) through their calling rates is not the answer. ... Other funding sources should be pursued."
County-run jails have opposed regulation, and have largely managed to avoid it.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, hopes to change that. He has introduced a bill that would ban commissions and require contracts to be awarded to providers offering the lowest cost of service for inmates. It would apply to all jails and juvenile facilities statewide.
The California State Sheriffs' Association opposes the measure, contending the changes would "negatively impact inmates" by reducing funds for inmate services.
But Quirk said, "I think there are better ways to fund it other than taxing grandma."
The bill, which passed the Assembly, goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.
Quirk said the industry has remained silent on the bill. GTL, San Francisco's call contractor, did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to accepting the amended contract to lower phone costs with San Francisco, GTL recently agreed to a $1.1 million settlement after the county said it overcharged consumers and underpaid commissions. Mirkarimi said the settlement would offset the reduction in commissions from the reduced phone prices.
At a board committee hearing last month, Mirkarimi said he anticipates the lower costs to cause call volume to rise by 20 percent.
Supervisor London Breed asked why inmates should have to pay anything for local calls.
"We could negotiate in the next tier of the contract for no fee for local calls, and that's what we should do. It would really send quite a loud message around the state and the nation if we would reform in that direction. I for one support that," Mirkarimi said.
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