There is a significant downside to Hudson's strategy. "If we really change the collect-call paradigm, it's going to have a big effect on our revenue. I don't know what will happen to a lot of our programs. I'd love to think the taxpayer will step in and pick up the slack," Hudson says, suddenly looking tired, "but in Los Angeles County we can't even pass a school bond."
Other states are also considering reform. Michigan and Rhode Island are looking at debit-card calling. Missouri has announced that its next contract will eliminate kickbacks. Federal prisons have already switched to a debit system.
California's phone contracts with MCI WorldCom and Verizon come up for bid this year. Whether or not any meaningful changes will be made in the rate and commission structures is presently up in the air. Thus far, the indications are not promising. In the meantime, the families of inmates will continue to accept collect calls they can't afford. When they're no longer able to pay the bills, people like Cara Gould and Father George Horan will do what they can to step in and help.
This morning I got my first collect call of the week. It was from a young man who has no family to speak of. I take his calls because there isn't anybody else to do it. Plus, I like him and hope he'll eventually make something good of his life.
"Thanks," he said right before we rang off. "I know these calls cost you. But sometimes it really helps to . . ." He paused, searching for words. "Sometimes it helps to just talk."