By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Exactly what rehabilitation methods -- if any -- might reverse the trend is a topic around which there is much controversy. Yet according to studies on recidivism dating from 1954 to the present -- including a 1972 study done by California's own Department of Corrections Research Division and a more recent 1998 report prepared by the Florida House of Representatives Justice Council Committee on Corrections -- the amount of contact an inmate has with his or her family and community is among the top predictors determining a parolee's success. "The information we found on the subject was pretty clear," Hayden says. "Advocates and incarceration experts all said that inmates who remain in contact with family and loved ones are less likely to pose a threat to prison staff or to re-offend once they're released."
Certainly, lowered prison phone rates are in the best interest of public safety. Some analysts suggest that lowering the rates might also be a smart move from a fiscal perspective. According to the June 2001 figures from the California Department of Corrections, it currently costs $25,607 per year to incarcerate a prisoner. If increased family contact by phone was able to keep just 0.7 percent of the current prison population from re-entering (that's about 1,200 people), the state would save $30,728,400 in prisoner housing costs -- just over what Governor Davis was afraid of losing in commissions.
So why hasn't the rate structure changed? The most frequently mentioned rationale is the cost of security. Even critics of the policy admit that it's more expensive to maintain a prison phone than the average street-corner pay phone. Security measures include tamper-resistant housings, recordings that precede each call notifying the recipient that the call is originating from a correctional institution, plus an ongoing "overlay" recording repeated during the call to remind you (in case you forgot) that this is not your average phone call. But the lion's share of the security expense is borne by the vendor. "The state does incur some expense in monitoring the calls," says Kay Perry of CURE, a national nonprofit prisoner advocacy and rehabilitation organization. "But that doesn't cost millions of dollars a year, which is what most states and a few counties are making."
Some states also justify their collect-call commissions by using the profits to offset the cost of programs that directly benefit prisoners and their families. In California during the '80s, when commissions from phone contracts were still relatively minor, prison phone moneys, minus expenses, were deposited in a state account earmarked for prisoner education and recreation services. Then in 1990, the year that the present commission structure was put in place, the Legislature began diverting a portion of the prison phone money to the state's general fund. The trend continued until all of the revenues were funneled straight into the state treasury.
In L.A. County, jailhouse phone commissions go into what is known as the Inmate Welfare Fund, which, according to state law, is "to be used solely for the benefit, education and welfare of the inmates." Yet in past years, it didn't always work out that way. In 1998, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury went so far as to appoint a Criminal Justice Committee in order to take a closer look at the way the IWF money was being spent. The committee interviewed prisoners, reviewed documents and pored over the Inmate Welfare budget, which they found rife with mystery line √§ items like $48,294 for "office furnishings" (jail inmates generally don't have offices), $67,797 for "police supplies" and $4,140,872 for "other financing uses." At the end of the process, the committee was not pleased. "The $70 million currently in the Inmate Welfare Fund account is not being used directly for the inmates' services as prescribed by various California penal codes," they concluded in their final report in June 1999. The grand jury further directed the L.A. County supervisors to take steps to "assure that these substantial moneys be expended for the welfare of the inmates, as prescribed by the State of California Penal Code."
Under Sheriff Lee Baca things seem to have gotten better. Lieutenant Robert Hudson administers the fund, and he appears to do so with a compassionate eye to the actual needs of the inmates. "This sheriff's main focus is to provide more inmate programs because he believes it will reduce the jail population," says Hudson. "So nearly every dime that comes in here gets spent on inmate services." Not so coincidentally, perhaps, in the past 12 months the number of county inmates has fallen by more than 10 percent.
"If we could continue to provide the same services, things like our education program and our Community Transition Team [which helps newly released inmates ease their way back into society], and get our budget from elsewhere, I'd do it," Hudson says. "But it's hard to get the public to pay for what they see as 'frills.' A lot of people think if you're in jail or prison, you should just sit there in a room by yourself, staring at the wall."
Nevertheless, Hudson is making some significant moves on his own toward reform. "Right now," he says, "we're looking into a debit-card system." His research indicates that debit cards will drop rates without compromising security. "Our plan is, when a phone goes into disrepair, we'll just replace it with the debit-card phones. Eventually we'll offer both options, the cards and the collect calls." The switchover shouldn't be too hard, Hudson adds, because L.A. County already offers debit cards that the inmates use with vending machines.
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