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Crime Pays

Illustration by Geoffrey Grahn & Richard Louderback

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 inside the 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.

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.) ä

"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.

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 Diego­based 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 ä 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, then­state 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.

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 ä 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.

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."


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