Originally created 11/05/01

Cline: Prison call rates victimize families



Imagine for a moment your trusty mobile phone is gone. Now imagine you are stranded in a government building and need to make a call.

So you go to the nearest public phone to use your dime-a-minute calling card, but discover the phone allows only collect calls. Then you read the fine print: $3 to connect and 50 cents each minute.

You walk furiously toward the nearest official and ask for another phone.

"Another phone," the employee says with a chuckle. "There are no other phones."

Thank goodness that's only make-believe. Or is it?

The truth is, the government allows phone companies to charge those kinds of rates on some of its premises every day. You've just never heard about it because the only people getting gouged are among the most politically unpopular groups in society: the families of prison and jail inmates.

Nearly every phone company operating a jail or prison telephone system charges as much as four to five times the competitive rate. And because the calls are collect only, the charges punish the inmate's family, not the inmate.

The government not only condones this gouging, but also profits from it in the form of kickbacks, which prison officials call a "commission."

The typical commission is about 40 percent of what the monopoly phone provider collects. Last year, the state of Georgia made $10 million off the friends and families of the incarcerated. South Carolina made $5 million.

It hasn't always been this way. About 20 years ago, prison and jail phones operated like any other pay phone. But authorities rightfully clamped down after discovering some inmates used the phones to run criminal schemes.

So the system was changed to let inmates dial only from a list of pre-approved numbers over a single carrier.

Of course, the carrier had no incentive to be competitive, and began charging high rates. To get their piece of the pie, the prisons and jails built kickbacks into the phone contracts. The phone companies, in turn, raised their rates to maintain their high profit margins.

Kickbacks and rates seem to go up nearly every time a contract comes up for renewal.

Of course, new technology would permit inmates to make monitored, pre-approved phone calls through the competitive carrier of their choice. But the prisons and jails have stuck to the monopoly system and the revenue stream it creates.

Don't count on politicians and state regulators to step in - they don't want to appear soft on prisoners. After all, sticking up for families of inmates is sticking up for the inmates themselves in the eyes of many voters.

In fact, I believe many people dislike the families of prisoners almost as much as the prisoners themselves.

Of course, you'll never get them to admit that. What you will hear from proponents of the current prison phone systems is that the high charges are justified because they offset the cost to taxpayers, or that they keep inmates from making excessive calls.

Those arguments, and others, have valid points. But the fundamental fact remains that the government is condoning and profiting from a monopoly phone system that levies high charges on a specific class of people. That's wrong no matter who the people are.

Some would even argue the charges are fair considering phone companies run the risk of not collecting on inmate calls.

That's a load of hooey.

Companies such as Sprint, AT&T and WorldCom wouldn't be trying to outbid each other for prison phone contracts if the deals were anything but lucrative.

Would Sen. Charles Walker - who owns a prison phone subcontractor - be in the business if it wasn't easy money?

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or dcline@augustachronicle.com.