Grand Jury calls for free phone services for inmates

, , June 23, 2021

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Civil panel says jail should not be a profit center

Inmates in Sonoma County’s jails must rely on a contracted telephone service to communicate with family and friends where the charges can equal more than 20 cents per minute, exceeding prevailing market rates by tenfold. The arrangement is part of the county’s Inmate Welfare Trust (IWT) and jail commissary where inmates also can purchase snacks, books and magazines and video game privileges. This captive audience is also charged for some of their drug counseling and must pay for some of the salaries of the jail staff that administer the phone system and jail store.

The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury found the Sheriff’s Office garnered $1 million in profits over a recent year from the sale of commissary items and phone service commissions. The panel called the arrangement “highly expensive” and called on the sheriff’s office and county board of supervisors to provide low-cost or free phone, audio and video services similar to what other jurisdictions such as the State of California, San Francisco and San Diego counties offer.

In its annual report released this week, the grand jury reminded the government and public that more than half (60%) of the jailed inmates are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crimes.

“In the end, the grand jury concludes that our jail should not be a profit-generating entity,” the report read. “Adding large commissions and mark-ups makes it harder for incarcerated people to maintain their support networks on the outside.”

The grand jury supports replacing a long-standing commercial contract with outside telephone service vendor Global Tel Link with a model based on the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department by the end of this year.

Global Tel Link is based in Falls Church, Virginia and controls 50% of the nation’s inmate and jail phone calling systems, earning $1.2 billion in a recent year, according to court filings related to recent lawsuits. Global Tel Link has been the subject of a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) class action lawsuit and was sued by the State of Mississippi for “racketeering.” Both actions were dismissed in a 2017 federal court ruling, but recent legislation in the U.S. Congress is about to set caps on inmate phone charges and commercial commissions allowed.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Inmate Welfare and Jail Store Trust Funds were audited last year by the county’s auditor office. That audit found the “transactions (were) executed in compliance with the IWT Manual and the law.” The audit did find some “unreconciled” differences in jail store accounts and recommended tighter cash controls.

The WT Fund had a beginning cash balance of $1,334,802 on Jul 1, 2019 and added $1,074,258 during the year. $316,845 of this total was from sales of phone cards to inmates. Expenses for the same period totaled $921,396, including $156,309 for voluntary drug counseling, $151,910 for in-jail education programs, $69,989 for California Parenting Program services and $13,451 for Sonoma County Library services.

The grand jury faulted the largest single expenditure of $286,575 for jail staffing, calling for the sheriff’s office to complete an annual report to the board of supervisors by Nov. 30, 2021. The grand jury also recommended the county to restructure a 10-member Inmate Welfare Trust Fund Commission that currently “holds disproportionate control” with nine seats filled by sheriff staff.

In an adjoining report, the grand jury commended the sheriff’s office and district attorney for their “cooperative approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the jail facilities and inmate population.” Jail visitations were eliminated, out of cell activity (OCA) was restricted and the inmate population was reduced by releasing several hundred inmates considered to “hold no threat to public safety” by the sheriff and D.A.

The grand jury recommended the county continue efforts to lower its jail population, which could lead to “immediate savings” and provide funds for adding a discharge planner and a social worker to provide a “bridge” to medical, behavioral health and social services.

During its physical inspections of the Main Adult Detention Facility (MADF) and North County Detention Facility (NCDF) the civil panel surveyed the inmate population. It found that 40% were homeless prior to arrest; 45% were diagnosed with behavioral health needs; over 55% were awaiting trial; and, over 100 people rotate through the facilities each week with new bookings and releases.

The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury met weekly during 2020-2021 in virtual sessions. The volunteer panel of 16 members was led by foreperson Sharon DeBenedetti, of Healdsburg. The presiding judge was Brad. J. DeMeo. The panel completed a series of five reports and investigations that are available to the public at all county library branches and online at www.sonomagrandjury.org.

Read the full Sonoma County Grand Jury Report.