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California Makes Calls Free for State Prisoners and Juvenile Detainees, Prohibits Telecom Kickbacks to Prisons and Jails

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On September 29, 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed S.B. 1008 into law, barring government agencies in the state from collecting any part of the revenue from providing calls in prisons and jails. It also makes calls completely free at state prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

State law already mandated service quality levels by telecom providers for the general public, which the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is authorized to enforce. The new bill extends that protection to people held within the California carceral system.

Authored primarily by Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo), the bill was introduced in the Senate in February 2022. It passed on August 29, 2022, with the affirmative votes of 54 Democratic senators, overcoming 15 Republican votes against the bill.

Addressing the telecom industry behind cell bars, the legislation first recognizes the importance of social connection, especially in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders: They are granted completely free calls. So are adults in state prisons. State prisoners and youth in residential placement or detention centers must now be provided calls at no charge either to the person making or the person receiving them, “subject to the operational discretion” of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Next, in a blow against profiteering, the bill prohibits government agencies from collecting call revenue at any prison or jail in the state. In addition, PUC is now required to extend the same quality assurance to incarcerated people as to other telecom service customers. This makes non-compliance with PUC directives in prisons and jails a crime, which in turn reduces the control formerly enjoyed by prison and jail authorities over the communications of those they cage. The more or less unregulated profiteering by companies providing telecom contracts to these institutions also has new constraints.

Remaining provisions in the law deal with reimbursement required by the California Constitution for local institutions to cover certain state-mandated costs.

The new law is notable for recognizing that prisoners and detainees deserve rights and dignities like those enjoyed by non-incarcerated citizens, as well as for mandating the provision of those rights by the state’s prisons and jails.