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Inmates at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, Calif. (Staff archives)

Having a mother, father, brother or a sister in jail is an upsetting and scary experience. What makes it worse are sky-high special phone rates for calls from prisons that bust the family budget. That's the reason California passed a law in 2007 phasing in reductions in the cost of prison phone calls.

> In state-run facilities, that is. If your mom, dad, son or daughter happens to be in a county-run juvenile facility, immigration detention center or county jail, then state law doesn't apply.

Nationally, the Federal Communications Commission has just started a review of interstate calling rates to and from prisons. Shocked by commission rates that go as high as 61.5 percent in Alabama, the commission is looking at the disconnect between the real costs of prison telephone systems and wildly different commission rates from place to place.

In states like Maine, New Hampshire and Indiana, commissions are as low as 20 percent. In other states, like Minnesota, New York and South Carolina, they've been eliminated entirely.

But in Contra Costa County, you might as well be in Alabama.

Despite the 2007 law, phone call rates are triple what the state has put in place for state-owned facilities and the commissions paid by the operator Global Tel Link to the county are 53 percent, among the highest percentages in the whole country.

Where does the money go? A great deal of it goes to what are called inmate welfare funds. Inmate welfare funds, largely funded by telephone kickbacks paid by inmates' families, are used for both for inmate needs and for facilities maintenance.


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A 2000 Contra Costa grand jury report stated: "Penal Code section 4025(e) puts a positive incentive on not expending funds for inmate welfare, so that more funds are available for other jail facilities.

"Nothing too glaring has occurred in the recent past, but this fund will require careful monitoring if it is not to be abused."

While some of the inmate welfare funds may be used for worthwhile programs, securing the money by kickbacks from criminally high phone call rates that limit contact with young children, spouses and elderly parents, is an example of working at cross purposes.

Reasonable phone call rates are inmate welfare programs as regular contact with loved ones is one of the primary indicators for rehabilitation and for reducing recidivism -- and long-term costs for California taxpayers.

This loophole, which exposes the families of prisoners to conditions the state of California has already declared unacceptable, is easily changed.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner's office is considering sponsoring a parity bill that would state that county phone calling rates cannot be higher than those in state-owned prison facilities.

Please encourage her to take leadership on this issue.

It's only fair.

Email Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner.

Tracy Rosenberg is executive director of Media Alliance, a Bay Area democratic communications advocate www.media-alliance.org. Media Alliance is a member of the Prison Phone Justice Coalition www.phonejustice.org.