Calls Are Free, But California Prisoners Still Face Communication Obstacles
Months-long outages, equipment shortages, and unreliable service have plagued the roll out of new telecoms contract in California prisons.
Steve Brooks, Olivia Heffernan May 22, 2023
Last year, California passed Senate Bill 1008, making phone calls free for the roughly 90,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons to remediate decades of harm that overpriced prison phone fees have caused incarcerated people and their families.
This change followed another communication announcement by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). In March 2022, ViaPath Technologies became the provider for all communications services in California’s prisons. As part of the agreement, ViaPath would provide free tablets to each person incarcerated in the state.
“We know staying in touch with loved ones on the outside is important,” former CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison wrote in a memo in 2021. “Not only to remain connected as a family, but also to help you stay motivated and get ready to return home.”
But over a year since CDCR signed the contract, some California prisoners say that CDCR and ViaPath have failed to deliver on their promises. Overcrowding and increased demand have kept incarcerated people waiting for an hour or more to make phone calls. Meanwhile, ViaPath’s email system has experienced outages lasting several weeks or more at San Quentin and other facilities across the state. Compounding these issues, legal challenges to the ViaPath contract placed the distribution of tablets more than a year behind schedule.
“Nothing is free in prison. We all know that. So as soon as one good thing is announced, we pretty much know a bad thing is going to follow,” said Jesse Vasquez, executive Director of Friends of San Quentin News who was formerly incarcerated at San Quentin.
Before the law was enacted, the high cost of prison phone calls placed a heavy financial burden on incarcerated people and their loved ones. California’s incarcerated population and their families paid an estimated $68.2 million on per-minute charges and connection fees each year, according to Worth Rises, an advocacy organization that co-sponsored SB 1008. A 15-minute phone call from a state prison could cost as much as $2.03, even though minimum wage for non-industry prison labor in California could be as low as 8 cents an hour. A survey by the Ella Baker Center found that more than one in three families of incarcerated people report going into debt to cover the cost of prison phone calls, forcing many to limit communication.
When Steve Brooks, co-author of this article who is currently incarcerated at San Quentin, waits in line to use the prison’s phones, he often remembers a conversation he had over 20 years ago. “My mom was calling to ask if I could send letters rather than make calls; the phone bills had become too expensive. She even changed her number.”
As time passed, expecting not to hear from his family became normal; Brooks grew disconnected, indifferent, and detached.
Supporters of SB 1008 hoped the bill would lighten the financial burden on families of incarcerated people and allow for increased communication.
“Communication is not only a basic right, but an essential part of creating an environment for successful reentry,” the bill’s other co-sponsor, Sen. Josh Becker, wrote in an email to The Appeal. “Studies show disconnection from family and personal support systems creates mental health problems for the currently incarcerated and their families.”
In the months since SB 1008 took effect, its supporters say the legislation has improved incarcerated people’s mental health and connection to the outside world. Becker said he has heard “several especially impactful stories about people hearing their loved ones’ voices for the first time in years, or phone calls leading to the first in person meetings with family members.”
According to Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, the numbers back this up. Worth Rises found that from November 2022 until February 2023, the time incarcerated people spent on the phone increased 67 percent, from an average of 13.9 minutes per person per day, to more than 23 minutes.
In response to a survey that Worth Rises conducted to evaluate the impact of SB 1008, one California prisoner wrote, “It is a blessing. Now when the phone rings I smile and truly enjoy answering. Before SB 1008 I would worry about having enough funds for the calls.”
Another notable change, Becker said, is that for the first time, incarcerated people can “directly call their representatives without being charged, creating an avenue for self-advocacy we have not seen before.”
Without the obstacle of high fees, incarcerated people have been making more phone calls. But, according to residents at San Quentin and other facilities, CDCR and ViaPath have failed to provide enough phones to meet this increased demand.
CDCR has more than 4,600 phones systemwide, around one phone for every 20 people. San Quentin has 119 phones for its population of roughly 4,000, roughly one phone for every 33 people. In the facility’s northern block, where Brooks lives, approximately 800 people share just 12 phones.
Phone lines are often an hour long, with no guarantee that an officer won’t call for the daily count or for someone to return to their cell before their phone slot.
Brooks also added that prison officers “are constantly yelling at us to get off the phones or threatening that if we are making a call outside our allotted time, that we will be punished.”
Another respondent to Worth Rises’s survey echoed this concern, writing, “It’s nice that it’s free but the phone lines are so long, and they didn’t add [any more] phones so the calls have actually decreased and it’s harder to stay connected with less calls per day.”
“CDCR is committed to increasing access to communication technology that connects incarcerated persons with their support system. We know friends and family help incarcerated people build and maintain relationships that are critical to achieving their rehabilitative goals,” a CDCR spokesperson wrote in an email to The Appeal. ViaPath declined to comment.
ViaPath’s tablets, which offer video calls and email service, have helped alleviate phone shortage issues, but incarcerated people at seven facilities have yet to receive them. CDCR’s tablet program is more than a year behind schedule, thanks in part to a legal battle between ViaPath and Securus Technologies, its biggest competitor in the prison telecoms industry. ViaPath and Securus dominate the prison telecoms industry nationally, controlling more than 80 percent of the market. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, jails and prisons often have little choice but to accept exploitative contracts.
After CDCR announced the partnership in 2021, Securus filed a lawsuit in state court challenging CDCR’s decision to award ViaPath the contract. In court documents, Securus alleged ViaPath’s higher fees for video calls would cost California’s incarcerated population and their families an additional $12 million each year. In September 2021, a California judge ruled in Securus’s favor, invalidating CDCR’s contract with ViaPath.
In response, ViaPath appealed the decision and filed a motion to allow the company to keep the contract on an interim basis. In the meantime, tablet distribution, which CDCR had planned to finish by early 2022, slowed to a crawl. Just four facilities received tablets by March 2022; remaining facilities waited for the court to rule on ViaPath’s motion.
In June 2022, only days before ViaPath was due to provide email service for CDCR, the court ruled that ViaPath could keep the contract on an interim basis while waiting for higher courts to rule on the company’s appeal. The following month, residents at five CDCR prisons received tablets, but until March 2023, the majority of facilities had not received tablets.
On May 7, Brooks called to report that tablets had arrived at San Quentin but had yet to be distributed to residents. “The rollout has been painfully slow; they are really dragging their feet on this. I might even be out by the time these tablets come,” Timothy Hicks, who has been incarcerated at San Quentin for the last eight years, told The Appeal.
Five days later, Brooks called co-author Olivia Heffernan for the first time from his personal tablet. He described the experience as surreal, adding: “I never never thought this would be possible.”
Before tablets, Brooks and others incarcerated at facilities without them had to rely on CDCR’s archaic and unreliable email system, in which guards print out and hand-deliver messages. As the new provider, ViaPath became responsible for email services, but the incarcerated people interviewed for this story reported that San Quentin was without reliable email for months. ViaPath blamed “supply-chain issues” for shortages of printers and ink.
“It’s been 90 days since the new service started and I haven’t gotten any emails from ViaPath,” said incarcerated journalist Juan Moreno Haines in October 2022. “Losing JPay service is crippling. I used to receive hundreds of email letters.” Haines, an award-winning journalist, had to rely on phone calls to help run San Quentin News and continue his writing career when email was not consistently available.
ViaPath, which had an annual revenue of $318 million in 2019, restored regular paper distributed email service in San Quentin, but issues with service reliability and outages have persisted. “ViaPath never delivers in 24 hours. It takes a couple days, sometimes a couple weeks,” Haines said in March 2023.
Even today, those without tablets have been unable to receive emails for more than a month due to a statewide outage of printing services.
“Unfortunately, [ViaPath] was unable to provide enough supplies and equipment to participating institutions to keep up with demand, resulting in a backlog and long wait times. To address the backlog and improve service, [ViaPath] paused all printing services statewide beginning April 12, 2023,” a CDCR spokesperson wrote to The Appeal in an email on May 11. “As a small form of apology for the poor customer service,” CDCR refunded those with pending print jobs as well as impacted senders with an 18-message credit, worth 90 cents.
As many prisoners suspected, ViaPath’s free tablets come with a catch. Although the device itself is free, video calls cost 20 cents a minute, more than twice the hourly minimum wage for many in California’s incarcerated population. Messages, pictures, video messages, and e-cards are 5 cents each, and entertainment options like music streaming can cost as much as $7.99 a month.
The original draft of SB 1008 eliminated fees for video calls and emails, but legislators removed the provision to gain Newsom’s support for the legislation. Newsom vetoed a similar bill in 2020. The first version of the bill also included free calls for people incarcerated in jails, which generally have higher phone fees than prisons, but the California State Sheriffs’ Association (CSSA) lobbied against including jails in the legislation. Local sheriffs often receive kickbacks from contracts with telecom providers.
Desperate for outside communication, many have turned to contraband cell phones to keep in touch with family and friends. Cell phones have long been commonplace in prisons, even though smuggling one in constitutes a misdemeanor and includes a $5,000 fine. For those incarcerated, phone possession could lead to loss of privileges, such as yard access and family packages. It could also cost a person a delayed parole date.
Correctional officers claim cell phones are used to order murders, traffic drugs, commit extortion, and coordinate gang hits and escape plots. And yet, incarcerated people report that it is the officers responsible for confiscating the phones who are also smuggling them in.
In January 2022, a corrections officer at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility was sentenced to more than three years after smuggling methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, and cell phones into the facility. On Feb. 24, former San Quentin officer Keith Christopher was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison for smuggling at least 25 cell phones into the facility.
Prison officials have relied on random searches, some involving dogs, to curtail cell phone possession. Jarvis Jay Masters, who has been incarcerated for more than 40 years, said, “I’m old enough to remember a time when a shakedown wouldn’t have resulted in the confiscation of 60 phones, it would have been 60 shanks [weapons made of plastic and other found materials] and other deadly weapons. This demonstrates what most incarcerated people really want now: to communicate with family and friends and the precious parts of our lives that are not caged in here.”
Brooks, editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, a publication run and distributed by incarcerated people, says that outside communication is crucial to his work as a journalist. “The way people knew about what was going on in here during COVID and the reason why we got so much publicity and support was because we were communicating with people outside,” Brooks said. “I think CDCR was nervous to give us the ability to report the inhumaneness of this place so freely.”
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