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
California isn't the only state raking in cash from inmate phone calls. New York, Delaware, Minnesota, Texas and Florida are among the states taking comparable percentages. Even L.A. County has its own 42-percent sweetheart deal with its primary vendor, Pacific Bell. Over the three-year period covered by the current PacBell contract, the county of Los Angeles expects to clear an astounding $70 million.
Logic would suggest that since most families live closer to county jailhouses, calls from these facilities should, on average, be less expensive than those from state prisons. They are not. A 10-minute collect call from Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles to that same hypothetical home in Santa Monica costs $9.90 -- 69 cents per minute, plus a $3 surcharge. The shorter the call, the higher the price point: A five-minute call costs $6.45. Of course, if a family illness or other emergency keeps you on the phone for 45 minutes, you'll pay $34 for the chat. Ten of those calls and you've spent as much as you'd pay for a new washer-dryer.
By the way, that same 45-minute collect call, if made from a pay phone located outside the jail using MCI WorldCom's 1-800-COLLECT system, costs $6.45 if made at night or on the weekend, $9.55 at peak business hours -- a $24.45 difference during peak hours, $27.55 off peak. Since the jail facilities house around 22,000 prisoners at any given moment, L.A. County appears to be making an average of $1,060 in phone profit per inmate per year. Nice work if you can get it.
Lavish revenues from correctional calls are a relatively recent development. Most states have collected commissions from inmate calls for decades, but the percentages were small and the profits never added up to any kind of big money. After the breakup of AT&T, however, came the deregulation of coin telephones. Overnight, vendors scrambled to acquire prison phone contracts. It helped that the shake-up of the telecommunications industry began just as ever-stricter determinate-sentencing laws were causing inmate populations to skyrocket, and the idea of prison profitability was becoming a national trend, writes Joseph Hallinan in Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation. Nearly every U.S. state and county rushed to get its share of the windfall.
By the mid-'90s, the inmate phone market was racking up over $1 billion in sales nationally. (Consider that the entire nationwide residential long-distance market was then estimated to be only a $5 billion business.) √§
"Most people tend to forget, it's not the inmates who are paying these bills," says Father George Horan, a chaplain at Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A. "It's the families of the inmates. And the families didn't commit a crime."
In the city's very poorest quarters, communities like the housing projects of East Los Angeles and South-Central, one meets a disproportionate number of parents with sons or daughters who are incarcerated. Theresa Allison is the director of Mothers ROC (Mothers Reclaiming Our Children), a community-activist organization located in Watts. "I know more mothers than I can count who are accepting those high-priced calls," Allison says.
Allison had her own experience in 1992, when her son, DeWayne Holmes, was sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly stealing $10. "For people who've never had a child locked up, it may be hard for them to understand," Allison says. "But think about the person you love most, put them behind bars in your mind, then imagine the fear and hurt you'd feel every day." Sometimes talking to her son on the phone was the only thing that let Allison go to sleep at night. "It was the one way I could help ease the pain I knew he was in," she says. "Prison is a dangerous place. People get hurt and killed in there. I had a heart attack when my son went to prison, just from the shock and grief of it. Those calls were my lifeline."
Like many working poor, Theresa Allison barely makes enough to get by. She was able to pay her phone bills only with the help of her family and extended family. "Everybody chipped in. I was lucky," she says. "A lot of mothers don't have family who can help them out, so they have no choice but to put a block on their phone."
"I constantly have mothers say to me, 'I couldn't bear to hear his voice and not accept the call,'" says Father Horan. "So they put a collect-call block on the phone because they don't know what else to do. They can't afford the calls. And they can't stand not to talk to their sons." Customer-service representatives for MCI WorldCom, Verizon and Pacific Bell also told me that such dilemmas are depressingly familiar. "I get mothers calling me every day, just sobbing because they don't have any choice but to ask for a block on their phone," said a female rep from PacBell. "I always feel terrible because you can tell it's killing them to cut off the contact."
Sometimes it's the phone company, not the customer, that institutes the block. When a family's phone bill rises above what a service provider deems acceptable, the phone service is cut off until the entire bill is paid. "I always know when families get their phones shut off," says Cara Gould, operations director of Homeboy Industries, part of Jobs for a Future, a nonprofit employment and referral service for at-risk youth, "because then the guys call us instead." As a result, Gould says, Jobs for a Future's collect-call charges average around $4,000 per month.