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
Statistically, the majority of the people accepting the correctional calls are women -- mothers, girlfriends, wives. But in some cases women are the ones doing the calling. California has the largest number of female prisoners in the United States -- nearly 11,000 at current count. Approximately 80 percent are mothers, most of whom have one or more kids for whom they were the primary caretaker before incarceration.
Andrea Aszocar, now 20, was 10 years old when her mother got 17 to life for conspiracy to commit murder. (The conviction came after the mother complained to a friend about her abusive stalker of an ex-boyfriend, and the friend went and shot the guy in the leg.) Following her mom's incarceration, Andrea and her three siblings -- a brother and two sisters -- went to live with their maternal grandmother. Like my young caller David, the mom did everything she could to remain an involved parent. Although Andrea says she is close to her grandmother, it was always her mother's voice she craved in times of crisis. "My mom's the one I would turn to for advice when school was hard, or when I was worried about boys or sex and all those things," Andrea says. "More than anyone in my life, she's the one who always pushes me to be the best I can be. Even now that I'm grown, every minute I have on the phone with my mother is precious. That's why it hurts so much when sometimes she's afraid to call us because of the money."
Andrea's youngest sister, Adriana, was only 4 months old when their mother went away. More than 10 years later, Adriana says that most of the kids at her school have no idea her mom is in prison. "I don't tell anybody," she says, her voice small and even. When asked what she and her mom talk about, Adriana blinks unhappily, then answers after a short pause. "Mostly she says she loves me and I say I love her." Another pause. "If I didn't get to talk to her on the phone, it'd be like I didn't have a mom at all."
Why should these calls come at such a usurious price? Although phone companies must file rates with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the proposed rates are rarely monitored. For years, families complained that they were being charged more per minute than the published rate. Finally, the excessive tariffs were reported with enough frequency that a San Diego¬≠based consumer-advocacy group called UCAN sued MCI WorldCom -- which was just MCI at the time -- on behalf of prisoners' families for "wrongful charges" made between July 12, 1996, and July 12, 1999. In hearings before the CPUC, UCAN alleged that MCI was charging more than the lawful rates, deliberately disconnecting calls in order to incur higher reconnection charges and, in some cases, billing for calls that were never made. Last year, the CPUC decided in favor of UCAN, and MCI WorldCom √§ agreed to pay a $10,000 fine plus damages of $522,458 to nonprofit organizations serving prisoners. The settlement was a symbolic victory, but it put no actual money back in the pockets of the families, and did precisely zero to lower the inmate phone rates. "We could sue about the wrongful charges," says UCAN's Charles Langley, "but although prison-call rates represent one of the most unjust and vicious issues we've run across in some time, those rates are perfectly legal."
In February of 2000, then¬≠state Senator Tom Hayden decided to take on the inmate-call issue when he introduced a bill requiring the state Department of Corrections and the Department of General Services to award prison telephone contracts to the vendors providing the lowest reasonable costs -- instead of the highest possible commissions. "We all understand, there's a legitimate expenditure for security," says Hayden. "But that's not what this is about. This is a policy of 'Reach out and gouge somebody.' It's total embarrassment."
After a slow start, SB1978 sailed through both houses with strong bipartisan support. "People on each side of the aisle got that it wasn't a law-and-order issue," says Hayden. "It was a human issue." But when the bill reached Governor Gray Davis' desk, it was summarily vetoed. The governor cited only one reason for his rejection: He didn't want to give up the revenue.
"The states get addicted to the funds these calls generate," says Gerald Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project. "But everyone tends to forget that most prisoners are eventually going to return to the community. And how they're going to fare when they get out very much depends on the family and community ties they've been able to maintain while they're inside."
Family contact is particularly crucial in California, which not only has the largest prison system in the U.S., but also the highest recidivism rate in the nation, with 70 percent of the state's paroled felons re-offending within 18 months. This revolving-prison-door syndrome is a somewhat new phenomenon. In 1978, parole violators represented approximately 8 percent of the total felons admitted to prison. By 1998, this number had increased to a staggering 71 percent. Now, nearly three-quarters of all admissions to state prisons are re-offenders.