A group of inmates at a San Mateo County jail have been in a hunger strike for the past 10 days, demanding the price of commissary merchandise be lowered, and free phone calls and remote video visits be offered during the pandemic.

A change.org petition filed by Rodrigo Prieto, an inmate at Maguire Correctional facility, has gathered 1,709 signatures. It claims commissary vendor Keefe Supply Co., charges more for the merchandise it sells at Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City than at other nearby jails.

“What we are asking for is within reason. With the COVID-19 pandemic it’s hard on our families to support us,” Prieto wrote in the petition. “San Mateo County is by far said one of the richest counties in California and America. So why is it overcharging its inmates on their basic living essentials?”

The inmates’ demands have been echoed by numerous residents who spoke at a San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting this week and sent letters to its members.

“It is absurd that at any time, but especially amidst a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail, people are being overcharged for basic living essentials and denied adequate contact with their loved ones,” said San Mateo County resident Emily Pickup in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. “We demand immediate action in renegotiating the contract with Keefe, making phone calls free and fixing the devices for video visits.”

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said no more than three inmates had contracted COVID-19 and had been quarantined.

Nonetheless, the inmates’ message has been heard as the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office Thursday said it’s working to address their concerns.

“We discovered that our commissary vendor charges prices that are higher than those of other local jails,” said Sheriff’s Office Lt. Stephanie Josephson in a press release. “We have worked with our vendor and have agreed to lower the prices to match those of the other jails.”

Josephson noted all revenue from the commissary is used for inmate programs and commissary personnel.

She also noted the Sheriff’s Office contracts for inmate phone services. The rate of call is currently 4.5 cents per minute, so a half hour phone call will cost the inmate or their family $1.35.

The Sheriff’s Office also began offering remote video visits at the onset of the pandemic as in-person ones have been prohibited. During the pandemic, every inmate is receiving two 30-minute video visitation sessions per week free of charge, but there have been technical issues, Josephson said.

“This has been an enormous undertaking as we have not provided that service in the past,” she said. “We are committed to finding solutions to remote video visits and are hopeful they will enhance the inmate family unification process.”

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