Ross Mirkarimi

Reducing phone charges helps inmates connect with families



It’s expensive being poor. Families of inmates often live on the edge of insolvency.

I know a mother of two, married to a man doing time in the San Francisco jail, who is trapped between the domino effect of poverty and the desire to maintain her children’s relationship with their father. The trouble began when her credit rating dropped due to late bill payments, which triggered the repossession of her car, which put her job at risk because public transit couldn’t get her to work on-time.

Now she relies on loan centers that charge high interest rates or paying the rent on her dilapidated apartment late, all while trying to stave off eviction. She says she contemplates leaving San Francisco on a daily basis. To do so would improve her financial situation, but would reduce her children’s already limited access to their father.

Depending if they can afford the time it takes to take transit to County Jail 5 in San Bruno for a weekly visit, or the unreasonable cost of a phone call, this family must literally choose between putting food on the table or connecting with their loved one.

Research shows that inmates who preserve ties with their families, especially their spouses and children, have a much better chance of staying out of jail once released. Keeping in touch is almost an impossible reality considering the jolting cost of making a $1 per minute in-state, long-distance or pre-paid collect call.

Until a cap on interstate calling rates was introduced earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission, the telephone companies providing inmate phone services were largely unregulated. As a result, correctional facilities allowed inmate phone service providers to charge jacked-up calling rates in exchange for a cut of the revenue, paid to the facility in the form of a phone commission. Because these commissions are used to fund services for inmates, this decades-old practice created a paradoxical relationship between inmates, inmate phone service companies, prisons, and county jails.

In the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s most recent contract with its phone service provider, Global Tel*Link (GTL), we broke this counterproductive cycle and changed the way we do business. We’ve dramatically reduced calling rates and surcharges for inmate phone calls, including a 70 percent reduction for a 15-minute collect or pre-paid collect, in-state, long-distance call, from $13.35 to $4.05, and a 32 percent reduction for a 15-minute debit, in-state, long-distance call, from $5.98 to $4.05.

Given the city’s longtime dependence on phone commissions to fund rehabilitative programs, like Resolve to Stop the Violence and the One Family visitation program, reducing inmate calling rates endangers program stability while spotlighting an addiction that’s shared by almost every prison and jail in the country: balancing incarceration budgets on the backs of people who can afford it least. According to the US Department of Justice, 80 percent of families who have a member incarcerated live at or below poverty levels.

Fortunately, our department recently won a settlement against GTL’s predecessor, enabling us to fund programs for several years without taking a hit. But, in the long run, City Hall must realize that gouging poor people doesn’t improve public safety. It punishes innocent children by limiting their communication with their family, subordinates the healing value of family reunification to profit, and strengthens the inter-generational resentment that is laced between impoverished communities and the justice system that is supposed to protect them.

Gratified with the unanimous support of our phone rate reform by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is proud to be one of the first county jail systems in the nation to dramatically reduce its telecom rates.

Our next policy reform will be the unregulated, exorbitant cost of inmate commissary fees and commissions.

Ross Mirkarimi is elected Sheriff of San Francisco

Parents, behind bars


By Ross Mirkarimi

OPINION Nearly 50 percent of the 2.7 million people incarcerated in US prisons and jails are mothers and fathers. In San Francisco, about 40 percent of the prisoners are parents. For their children, the punishment does not fit the crime.

Federal and state recidivism registers at 78 percent; locally the rate is 65 percent and dropping. If we’re serious about breaking the cycle of incarceration, we must get serious about restoring the family ties of the incarcerated.

Studies support what common sense suggests — strengthening the parent-child bond reduces recidivism. It also reduces the prospect that children of the incarcerated are more likely to violate the law. While maintaining appropriate safety and legal protocols, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is reexamining policies that invariably damage or strain relationships between an inmate parent and child, starting with birth. In honor of Mother’s Day, on May 9, the Community Works Jail Arts Program, with our department, converted the lobby of the SF women’s jail into a temporary gallery of art created by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers.

That provided a warm environment to announce a policy first in California: The Birth Justice Project, designed to affirm the reproductive rights of all incarcerated women and provide prenatal and postpartum care during the transformative experience of pregnancy, birth and parenthood. With the stewardship of Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an OB/GYN from UCSF, along with the Department of Public Health, Zellerbach Foundation, and our volunteer doulas (professional birth assistants), we’re radically distancing ourselves from the barbaric attitude of 33 states that still shackle women during labor. Rather, we seek to nurture the inimitable bond between mother and child.

While most jails and prisons shun a lactation policy, we’ve unveiled our pro-lactation program. Breast pumps, refrigeration, and delivery are provided around the clock, facilitated by our jail health professionals. While the arcane national practice is to separate baby and mother after the third day of birth, we’re working to maintain the connection. If we can’t do it through diversion (alternatives to incarceration), then we’ll continue to assess our facility in allowing mother and baby to stay together. I look forward to promoting breast feeding in San Francisco’s jails.

For children of incarcerated parents, the absence of a mother is the loss of a primary caregiver. Ninety percent of incarcerated fathers in the US report that while away, their children live with the child’s mother. In contrast, only 28 percent of incarcerated mothers report that their children live with their father. Routinely, her children are cared for by a grandparent or relative — and about 11 percent are placed in foster care. Many children are bounced from caregiver to caregiver during their parent’s incarceration.

These disruptions to a child’s life negatively affect their social and mental development. Acknowledging the sense of disconnection experienced by children whose parents are incarcerated also means we must grapple with the emotional poverty that increases the likelihood of criminal behavior. In San Francisco, we’re taking steps to bridge this disconnection by reforming visitation policies to facilitating regular contact between children and incarcerated parents.

The people in our jails will eventually be released and will return to communities that historically have been underserved. We’re trying to intensify resources toward exit planning for newly incarcerated parents and guardians. Depending on individuals cases, that could include a regiment of parenting classes, substance abuse and mental health treatment, domestic violence counseling, reunification counseling for parent and child, reading and writing comprehension, high school completion, life skills such as financial literacy, and vocational training.

Many people don’t know what the Sheriff’s Department does or the difference between us and the SFPD; we’ve launched a monthly e-newsletter to keep the public informed. To sign up or contact us at:

Ross Mirkarimi is sheriff of San Francisco

How to help Iran without meddling


OPINION Two of us, Penn and Erlich, traveled to Iran in 2005 and interviewed numerous ordinary Iranians. People were very friendly toward us as Americans but very hostile to U.S. policy against their country. We visited Friday prayers where 10,000 people chanted, "Death to America." Afterward those same people invited us home for lunch.

That contradiction continues today as Iran goes through its most significant upheaval since the 1979 revolution. Iranians are rising up against an authoritarian system, but they don’t want U.S. intervention.

Many Iranians believe that they have experienced a coup d’état, in which the military and intelligence services have hijacked the presidential election. Through vote-buying and manipulation of the count, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad guaranteed himself another four years in office.

In June more than a million Iranians marched in the streets of major cities across the country. The spontaneous demonstrations included well-to-do supporters of opposition candidates, but also large numbers of workers, farmers, small-business people, and the devoutly religious. They were fed up with 30 years of a system that used Islam as an excuse for breaking union labor strikes, stripping women of their rights, and repressing a nation.

The Iranian government responded to these peaceful protests with savagery, killing dozens of people. Some human rights groups put the number at more than 100. The government admits arresting 2,500 people nationwide and continues to hold at least 500. Most are being held without charges or have simply disappeared.

The repression hasn’t killed the movement. On July 17, more than 10,000 people came to Friday prayers in support of the opposition. Instead of chanting "Death to America," they chanted "Death to the Dictator," a reference to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Police attacked them with clubs and tear gas.

Meanwhile in Washington, some politicians tried to use the crisis for their own ends. Sen. John McCain criticized President Obama for not taking a stronger position against the Iranian government. It’s ironic to hear McCain and other conservatives proclaim their support for the people of Iran when a few months ago they wanted to bomb them.

That doesn’t exactly build credibility among Iranians.

President Obama faces tough choices on Iran. If he speaks out loudly against Ahmadinejad, he is accused of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. If he says too little, then right-wingers in the U.S. accuse him of being soft on Ahmadinejad.

In reality, the U.S. has very little ability to impact what has become a massive, spontaneous movement for change. And it shouldn’t. The CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, bringing the dictatorial shah back to power. George W. Bush’s administration attempted to overthrow the Iranian government by funding and arming ethnic minority groups opposed to Tehran.

The U.S. government has no moral or political authority to tell Iranians what they should do. Iranians are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves.

That’s why citizen diplomacy is so important. Iranian demonstrators welcome the support of ordinary Americans. Joan Baez recorded a Farsi-language version of "We Shall Overcome" that has shot around the world on YouTube. She sang it July 12 at San Francisco’s Stern Grove.

Iranian activists are holding a hunger strike in front of the United Nations in New York from July 22 to 24, demanding that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon send a special commission to Iran.

With hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans in California, it would be unconscionable to ignore the nonnegotiable right of peaceful dissent by millions of people in Iran. Join us in the San Francisco Civic Center plaza on July 25, from noon to 4 p.m. Stand in solidarity with Iranians and against U.S. intervention in Iran ( *

Sean Penn is an actor, director, and writer who visited Iran in 2005. Ross Mirkarimi is a San Francisco supervisor, the first elected Iranian-American to hold that office. Reese Erlich is a freelance journalist and author of The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis.