The Rapacious Prison Phone Industry (Spring, 2008)

Hello, and greetings from the Central Office! Spring has sprung here in the Pacific Northwest. Birds are singing, flowers are blossoming, and the rain is even a little warmer. At least, that’s what they tell me. It’s still noisy, dusty, and a less than comfortable 62 degrees here in my windowless conclave, so it’s been nothing but spring cleaning for me the past few weeks.

Across town, there’s a building that looks very similar to my Central Office. It’s anonymous, grey, concrete, but unlike the Central Office, it has a few slits for windows mounted high on the on the wall. Inside, it’s also noisy and dusty, just like my Central Office. And, if my county adheres to nationwide statistics, it is home to over 1 out of every 100 men in the county, unless you’re black—in which case it’s 1 out of every 9. Yes, I’m talking about the county jail, a particularly infuriating place to me because they’re served by a filthy CLEC (which prevents me from performing “service monitoring”).

Sarpy_County_jail_from_SE[1]

Telephone service is very unique in this environment. Depending upon the provider (either the ILEC or CLEC) the line class varies, but is nearly always distinct from other service types. For example, DD8 is the most commonly used line class in AT&T territories. This line class only allows automated collect calls, complete with an announcement that the collect call is from an inmate. The RCMAC guys had a pretty big laugh when the county sheriff’s home phone was “accidentally” coded DD8 a few years ago. Word to the wise, jilting a lover who works in translations is a very bad idea!

Inmate phones are big business. In New York State alone, gross revenues exceeded $39 million between 2001 and 2002. The business model used by prison telephone service providers is borrowed from the COCOT industry. These companies, such as Global Tel*Link and Correctional Billing Services (the two largest nationwide providers) generally provide all of their equipment and technology to correctional institutions at no charge. In addition, they pay kickbacks to the prison. These can be outrageously high and are effectively a tax on inmates’ families and loved ones. For example, the New York Department of Correctional Services, until recently, received a 57.8% commission. For many years, the prison system attempted to spin this as a benefit to the inmates (rather than an arbitrary and capricious tax levied against—demographically—some of the poorest people in the state) because the money was spent on prison operational costs. California collected over $26 million in commissions in 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Global Tel*Link is one of the largest inmate phone service companies

Global Tel*Link is one of the largest inmate phone service companies

To subsidize inmate telephone sets, telephone service, and surveillance/control technologies to prisons at no charge (along with the above mentioned kickbacks), firms such as Global Tel*Link and Correctional Billing Services (CBS) charge rates that are several times the market rate for collect calls. For example, according to CBS’ tariff on file with the FCC, a one-minute collect call is billed as follows:

  • $2.49 – monthly billing fee
  • $1.49 – bill processing charge
  • $3.95 – operator service fee
  • $.89 – call charge, billed per minute
  • $.40 – voice biometrics charge, billed per call
  • $1.00 – USF administrative fee, billed per call

As a result of these high charges, the unfortunate recipient of a one-minute call from prison is charged a whopping $10.22. Despite such high charges, many consumers complain of poor customer service from inmate-focused telephone companies. For example, Global Tel*Link’s call center is located in Argentina. Representatives working there are paid approximately $350 per month for a 35 hour week (which works out to approximately $2.50 per hour). It’s a typical call center environment; poorly lit, slow computers, and inflexible policies that do not favor the consumer.

There has been an ongoing campaign to draw attention to this situation, and a pressure group called the ETC has had some recent success in New York. After the ETC Campaign successfully lobbied New York Governor Spitzer, rates for calls from state prisons were reduced to some of the lowest in the country. Calls now cost 6.8 cents per minute plus a $1.28 connection fee regardless of where in the US the call is placed (local calls are not billed at a flat rate). Prior to April of this year, calls cost 16 cents per minute with a $3 connection fee.

In a few states, inmate phone service providers charge much lower prices for collect calls. Nebraska and Missouri largely prohibit the payment of kickbacks to jails and prisons, resulting in much lower costs (as little as 60 cents flat rate for local calls in Nebraska). As these states are equally able to provide collect calling services to their inmates as their higher-priced neighbors, arguments about higher operational costs for calls from prisons seem to ring hollow. Operational costs are indeed higher in prisons, but usage is also higher (creating much higher revenues than average for a pay telephone). The customer base, after all, is captive in both a literal and figurative sense. Equipment is also more durable, and with no coins to collect, telephones must be serviced only in the event of vandalism or failure.

Telephone equipment in prisons is rapidly evolving to take advantage of the latest technologies, along with both the surveillance-friendly and litigation-heavy legal climate. Rather than typical fortress phones, specialized (and, as you might imagine, highly durable) stations are used. Most of these are customer owned; numerous companies manufacture and market inmate telephone equipment. These days, technology has evolved far beyond the blue Western Electric “charge-a-call” stations of the early 1980s. For example, Global Tel*Link, the largest player in the inmate telephone market, offers a particularly innovative inmate phone. Inmates are assigned a PIN to place calls, which must match their thumbprint (a thumbprint scanner is built into the phone). A pinhole camera is built into the phone, and every call is digitally recorded, associated with the thumbprint, and videotaped—all wrapped in a digital envelope that meets legal chain of custody requirements. Since all calls are associated with a PIN, inmate conversations can quickly be reviewed weeks or months later.

Texas Inmate Phones makes a very durable prison phone (TIP 2000 Inmate Phone aka “The Safe” officially, and perhaps “The Don’t Sue Us Phone” unofficially) that does not have a cord. The handset is recessed inside the 14 gauge steel chassis. Obviously, this phone is very uncomfortable to use because the inmate must stand right next to the wall, bend down, and tilt their head against the phone. However, this design is popular with police departments who would otherwise have to escort inmates to a telephone. As is the common practice with other inmate telephone service providers, Texas Inmate Phones installs one of these phones in each cell at no charge, subsidizing the service by billing high collect call rates. It’s virtually impossible to vandalize these phones, and there is no handset cord for inmates to use for suicide attempts.

This cord-free phone from Wintel is similar to Texas Inmate Phones' product.

A similar cord-free phone from Wintel

The specific people (and the number of people) that inmates are allowed to call depends upon the rules of the facility. For example, Oregon allows its state prison inmates to call a pre-approved list of up to 15 people. Knowing who inmates call gives valuable information to law enforcement; they can openly engage in fishing expeditions as warrants are not required to monitor inmate conversations. Additionally, pre-clearing the list prevents inmates from harassing law enforcement, judges, witnesses, jurors, and prosecutors involved with their case. Such individuals would not be (in theory, at least) approved on an inmate’s calling list.

As an inmate, you’re generally subject to a number of additional restrictions on your calling. Here are some example policies from Oregon:

  • Billing is via collect call, prepaid collect call, or debit (prepaid outgoing) account.
  • Collect calls to a particular number are subject to a credit limit until there is an established customer relationship with Qwest and/or Global Tel*Link as applicable. After the limit is reached, collect calls can no longer be made to that number by the inmate until the bill is paid.
  • As is typical, inmate must place the phone number on a list for prior approval by the department of corrections.
  • Call forwarding is not allowed, nor are three-way calls. If the inmate is discovered to be calling numbers that are forwarded or that 3-way call, calling privileges are suspended. Also, “clicks” heard on the line will result in calls disconnecting.

And, with that, it’s time to bring another issue of The Telecom Informer to a close. My phone is ringing. It’s a collect call from Pennsylvania, and I hope it isn’t Bernie S!

Links

http://www.etccampaign.com/ – Equitable Telephone Charges pressure campaign, leading an effort to make rates more equitable.

http://www.globaltellink.com/ – Global Tel*Link, largest provider of prison telephone services in the United States.h

ttp://www.securustech.net/ – Securus Technologies, parent company of Correctional Billing Services. Check out the “testimonials” videos.

http://www.texasinmatephones.com/ – Texas Inmate Phones, manufacturer of the TIP 2000.

 

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