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San Francisco Jails Offer Small Monthly Allowance to Incarcerated People Without Financial Support

Incarcerated people in San Francisco jails who lack financial support can now receive a small monthly allowance to pay for basic necessities.

Under the new initiative, called the Commissary Allowance Pilot Program, those who have been in jail for at least 30 days and have a low commissary balance are eligible to receive $10 every month.

Although people incarcerated in San Francisco jails are provided basic hygiene supplies, they can also use funds sent by family members to purchase additional items from the commissary. Roughly one-third of the jail population doesn’t receive any outside support, according to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

A $10 monthly allowance may not seem like much, but those funds can actually make a big difference, said Paul Briley, a policy fellow with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

“While I was incarcerated, I had nobody putting any money on my books,” he said. “From what I heard from the people, this would mean the world to them. They have no support, they’re lonely. They’d be able to buy good deodorant. I heard an individual say they would be able to buy slippers in the shower.”

Paid for with funds raised by the Financial Justice Project, a city-run organization launched in 2016 to reduce the impact of fees and fines on low-income residents and communities of color, the program builds on previous efforts in San Francisco to reduce financial burdens on incarcerated people.

In July 2020, San Francisco supervisors passed the People Over Profits ordinance, barring city jails from charging inflated costs for phone calls, commissary items and other services. The legislation made phone calls in jails free and reduced the price of commissary items by an average of 43%.

And while that was an important change, Briley said, it didn’t help people who still lacked the funds to purchase things from the commissary. That disparity became particularly apparent during the pandemic, when many incarcerated people were unable to purchase important hygiene supplies, an issue that prompted advocates to push for the allowance.

Over 100 incarcerated people in San Francisco currently qualify for the program, said San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, who hopes it will create more equitable access to basic goods. The pilot is expected to last a year, he said, and hopes it will become permanent after that.

“This creates a situation where everybody has the opportunity to make choices for themselves with some money placed on their books by the community itself,” he said.

Miyamoto said this is the first program of its kind in the state, and other sheriff’s departments have already been calling him to inquire about it.

Some advocates, though, say that while the pilot is a good first step, it doesn’t address the larger question of why this allowance is needed in the first place.

“This is access to some dignity in some respects, but in other ways, it’s just the basic necessities for survival,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a criminal justice advocacy group. “We want to talk about why we’re criminalizing poverty in the first place. Who is sitting in the jails that can’t afford anything?”

Copyright 2021 KQED