Lawsuits target ‘extortionate’ phone calls, commissary items in California jails

 Twin Towers Correctional Facility
A lawsuit targets the high price of phone calls and commissary items in the Los Angeles jails, including Twin Towers Correctional Facility shown here.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The high price of jail phone calls and commissary purchases is the focus of a pair of proposed class-action lawsuits filed in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, the opening volleys in what could become a sprawling legal battle over who should bear the cost of funding certain jail services.

The first claim, filed in San Diego state court last week, accuses the county of marking up commissary items — the food and hygiene products that inmates can purchase in jail — so much it amounts to an illegal tax on inmates and their families. The second suit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles, echoes that allegation but adds claims about the high price of phone calls.

Lawyers are asking the counties to pay inmates and their families back for almost two years of markups on food and phone calls, an uncertain price tag they say could easily reach tens of millions.


“This is a really unjust system in which the people most vulnerable and least able to pay are paying — which in reality means it’s their loved ones paying,” said Barry Litt, one of the lawyers handling the suits. “If society is going to put people in jail, then society should bear the cost of allowing them to live halfway decently while they’re there.”

The legal team handling the San Diego and Los Angeles cases is filing similar claims against Kern, Sacramento, Alameda, Fresno, Orange, San Joaquin and San Bernardino counties, Litt said.

The lawsuit comes two years after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion to end markups on commissary goods and make phone calls free to the roughly 14,000 people in local jails.

So far, that has not materialized.

But in an interview with The Times last month, Sheriff Robert Luna said the county is trying to fix that and lower prices for inmates and their families.

“I don’t want them charged up for a cup of noodles or hot Cheetos, or whatever it may be,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

Lawyers for Los Angeles County declined to comment on pending litigation, while officials in San Diego did not respond to a request for comment on the case there.


The high cost of commissary merchandise and calls behind bars has come under fire over the last decade across the country.

“Everyone’s making a lot of money at the expense of inmates’ families,” Zev Yaroslavsky, then a Los Angeles County supervisor, said in 2014 when the county took up the issue. “They’re in jail. They’re paying their debt to society. That doesn’t give us the right to fleece them.”

The average jail charges about $3 for a 15-minute phone call — a figure that still can be prohibitive for low-income families struggling to stay in touch, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Decades of research by various academics shows that helping people maintain family ties during incarceration can reduce recidivism.

Commissary markups can be even costlier, sometimes reaching double the price of similar items in outside stores. Yet many jails and prisons don’t provide certain necessities — such as tampons, deodorant or writing supplies — except through the jail canteen, and the meager and sometimes moldy meals inmates can be served behind bars often aren’t enough without some commissary-bought Cheetos or ramen to supplement.

But commissary orders and phone calls are typically outsourced to third-party contractors — and it’s those contracts that are the crux of the issue in the current Los Angeles case.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Gregory Johnson and Jacqueline Murillo Castro, challenges Los Angeles County’s use of “commission-based contracts” in which the county is guaranteed a hefty chunk of revenue from the companies that handle commissary sales and phone calls.


Johnson spent part of 2020 and 2021 in Men’s Central Jail, and Castro has supported friends in jail by paying for phone calls and putting money in their commissary accounts.

“The millions of dollars in commissions that the companies agree to pay the County annually in exchange for these exclusive contracts are completely passed through to inmates, their families, friends, and attorneys, in the form of extortionate and outrageous prices, which are then used by the County to fund its jails,” the lawsuit says. “These ‘commissions,’ though denominated as such, are actually unlawful taxes.”

Some jurisdictions have already taken steps to eliminate those “unlawful taxes.” In 2021, Connecticut became the first to make all prison phone calls free. A little over a year later, California followed suit — but that change did not include county jails.

Still, some counties have tackled the issue on their own. San Francisco led the way in 2019 when county leaders voted to end commissary markups and make all jail phone calls free. Two years later San Diego made jail phone calls free but left commissary profits intact.

In counties that haven’t made those changes, calls and commissary purchases still bring in millions of dollars every year. County audits show that Los Angeles jails typically bring in more than $35 million annually from phones and commissary sales.

As in other counties, that money goes back to the Sheriff’s Department. Under state law, it has to be deposited in an Inmate Welfare Fund, which is supposed to be used mainly for the benefit and education of inmates. But the lawsuit alleges that’s not necessarily what’s happening.


“Rather than using the money primarily for vocational and educational programs, or other programs designed for the rehabilitation of inmates, much, if not most, of the money deposited in the Inmate Welfare Fund is spent on general jails issues, including maintenance, equipment, office furniture, salaries and, in some instances, food,” the lawsuit says.

That means that some of the county’s most vulnerable people — many of whom suffer from serious mental illness and a disproportionate number of whom are people of color — are stuck shouldering jail maintenance and equipment costs that the suit claims “are rightfully the responsibility of the taxpayers and society at large.”

The current lawsuit echoes a series of cases Litt filed several years ago. Back then, Litt said, an appeals court decided that only the contractors — not the inmates or their families — could sue because technically it was the contractors that bore the cost of the county’s pricey commissions.

But last year, a California Supreme Court decision in a case regarding municipal government and contractors changed the legal landscape. Afterward, Litt said, he realized he could pursue another round of lawsuits without the same legal barriers.

When filing the cases this time around, Litt said, his legal team decided on which counties to target based largely on two factors: “One, was the amount [of money] involved big enough to be worth litigating and, two, did we have a plaintiff?”

After Litt and his legal team finish filing the cases in the coming days, they will ask the courts to coordinate the cases in a single larger case — which could be expanded in the future.


Reform advocates and formerly incarcerated Angelenos welcomed the lawsuit and the possibility of change. Kent G. Mendoza-Morales — who is not part of the case filed this week but spent time in the county’s lockups almost a decade ago — remembers how tough it was for his family to help pay for his food and calls while he was in jail.

“My mom used to go sell stuff in alleys to make money,” he said. “She did that to put money on my books, just so I could buy the minimum in canteen.”

Now, Mendoza-Morales has been free for nine years and works as the manager of advocacy and community organizing at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, where he sees the way the costs of calls and commissary goods still affect inmates and their families.

“When you talk about making our communities better, you don’t do it by charging families who are already on the fringes so much for commissary and calls,” he said. “As one of the richest counties in the world, how is it that we’re expecting people to pay so much for something that is cheaper on the street?”