By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO, I began accepting collect calls from prison. It was not that I'd recently acquired felons in the family. I was working on a book about East L.A. gang members, and a number of the young men I was following managed to get themselves locked up. At first I took the calls for journalistic purposes. But as time passed, I noticed how achingly grateful the young inmates were for any kind of friendly contact. So I began staying on the phone for a few extra minutes, then a few minutes more, offering whatever motherly chat and psychological bromides I thought might buoy the spirits of my lonely callers.
Sometimes I'd use three-way calling to cross-connect the young men to their own mothers, or to their girlfriends, most of whom couldn't afford the collect charges. There was one kid in his 20s, I'll call him David, who regularly asked me to connect him to his daughter. For the four years of his incarceration, I eavesdropped as the guy, barely more than a boy himself, did his best to remain an active father in the face of awful odds. David wrote his daughter letters too. But it was the calls that seemed to best protect the fragile bond between them from unraveling. After the book was published, some of the young men got out and others replaced them. I kept on accepting the charges. Now that I'd seen how much a bit of caring conversation mattered, refusing the calls seemed heartless.
There was one little problem. My phone bills were ghastly, and they got worse every year. By taking a single collect call a day, I easily added $225 to my normal monthly total. If the calls were long, or the callers numerous, the charges jumped far higher. This was not a happy circumstance for a freelance writer on a budget. I inquired with various local and long-distance carriers as to how I might lower my costs. Surely there were some calling plans that might apply, I suggested. "Nope, sorry," the customer-service representatives at AT&T, MCI WorldCom, Sprint and PacBell all assured me. Well, was there any other creative way I might lower the bills? Calling cards? An 800 number? Any way at all?
"Actually, no," all the reps told me cheerily. "Not a one."
EVER SINCE THE BREAKUP of AT&T in 1984 and the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, telecom giants have relentlessly wooed nearly every living American in the hope of winning our long-distance and collect-call business. Like a Southern belle with too many suitors, we are courted with an array of gifts and blandishments -- cash rebates, frequent-flier miles and, of course, drastically lowered rates. In the state of California, however, there is a single type of phone service for which there is no competition, no lowered rates, absolutely no alternative: collect calls from California correctional institutions. If you have the misfortune to have a friend or family member serving time in a California state prison or an L.A. County Jail facility, in terms of phone rates you're completely and utterly screwed.
As of June 10, there were 161,187 inmates housed in California's 33 prison facilities. Since California prisons are typically located far from the urban centers in which most families live, the phone is often an inmate's only direct means of personal communication. But unlike other public pay phones, which allow the caller to choose between various rate-reducing options, state-prison phones offer only one way out. Calling cards, credit cards and 800 numbers are useless to inmates. Nor can one's incarcerated loved one dial 1-800-COLLECT or 10-10-321 from a prison phone. Inmate calls operate on a collect-only basis, and are administered exclusively by the vendors who've won contracts with the state -- currently, MCI WorldCom and Verizon. The collect calls they administer under their present contract are among the most expensive phone calls in the world.
In general, collect calls are a pricey way to have a conversation. If you accept collect charges made from a pay phone just outside Corcoran State Prison to your home in, say, Santa Monica, MCI WorldCom will bill you approximately $4.50 for a 15-minute call. (You'd pay $1.50 for that call if it were made from one private phone to another, half that if you had a good calling plan.) But if an inmate at Corcoran makes the identical 15-minute call from insidethe prison's walls, MCI WorldCom will charge you $7.50 to accept it. That's a 67 percent jump in price for the same service, same distance, same amount of time.
An additional element that drives up the cost is the fact that state prisoners can only make 15-minute calls. The phone automatically cuts off and the prisoner must dial again, incurring another $3 surcharge. If you are a parent with more than one child, 15 minutes is not much time.
Clearly somebody is making a hefty chunk of change on these phone calls. However, the chief profiteer is not who you might think. Although telecommunications vendors assuredly reap healthy returns from prison phones (and compete aggressively for the privilege), the real beneficiary is the state of California. Unlike other state concessions, prison phone contracts are not awarded to the vendor with the lowest bid, or with the most service to offer for the money. Instead, they are predicated almost entirely on who gives the state the biggest commission. Right now, MCI WorldCom and Verizon pay Sacramento 43 cents for each dollar they collect from state-prison calls. Last year, close to $30 million made its way into the state treasury courtesy of prison phone commissions.