Sometimes Anita Fisher’s phone rings and at the other end of the line is a desperate parent whose mentally ill son or daughter has disappeared. Fisher tells them to visit the San Diego County Sheriff ’s “Who’s In Jail” website (apps.sd sheriff.net/wij/wij.aspx). There’s a good chance that’s where they’ve ended up.
Fisher is the education director for the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and leads the organization’s monthly Criminal Justice Family Support Group. But Fisher’s advice comes from personal experience. When her own son has gone missing, Fisher has found him through the jail site. The next step, she tells distraught family members, is to click the “Email this inmate” button to quickly reassure their loved ones that they know where they are and will be visiting as soon as possible.
That way, Fisher says, “they know that someone out there still cares and knows what’s going on with them.”
However, the e-mail system is now in danger of being dismantled.
The system comes under the review of the Inmate Welfare Committee, an advisory group in the Sheriff’s Department. It isn’t subject to the Brown Act, which regulates government meetings and documents, so the public isn’t notified of its gatherings and does not have an opportunity to comment. CityBeat obtained the committee’s meeting minutes and discovered that, starting in August, it was discussing plans to phase out the e-mail system. As of November, the committee—composed mostly of detention officers—was researching “alternatives and solutions,” which may include switching to a kiosk-based system or outsourcing it to a for-profit company.
Launched in 2007, the e-mail system allows users on the outside to send short messages to inmates via the internet for free. Jail staff prints these messages and distributes them to the detainees, though the inmates cannot use the same system to respond.
Detention Capt. Frank Clamser says the intent was to reduce the flow of postal mail into the jails. So far, the postal load remains unchanged, while e-mails have increased from 500 per month in 2007 to 55,000 per month in 2010.
Often times, “the content of the e-mails are so minute it’s not even cost-appropriate to print the stuff out,” Clamser says. “A lot of the e-mails are simply e-mails to say, ‘Hey, I wrote you a letter.’” Because the e-mails are not confidential, criminal defense attorneys use the system only for basic communication, such as informing clients of court dates.
“We’ll use the e-mail, but generally it’s to say, ‘Hi, I’m going to come to see you tomorrow,’” attorney Marc Kohnen says. “But you can’t overstate the importance of the e-mail system for families, because when an inmate is first entered into custody it can take a week to get a phone account set up.”