Heavy Toll | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Heavy Toll 

How Illinois is turning its prisoners' calls to their families into a million-dollar-a-year industry.

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By Tori Marlan

Phone companies must love people like Guadalupe Giron--not because she has relatives in another country whom she calls frequently, or because she pays her bills on time (she doesn't), or because she's a sucker for the latest technology (she isn't). They must love people like her because she has a family member in prison--and to talk to him she has to dish out about three times the cost of an average long-distance call.

Inmates in Illinois can make only collect calls, which entail a surcharge that's usually close to $3 and a fee that's between 20 and 30 cents a minute. International calls often cost less. Giron says, "It costs me $5 to talk to my mom in Mexico for 30 minutes--$9 to talk to my son in Joliet!"

Giron works as a nurse in a mental hospital and lives in a modest west-side bungalow with her husband, Luis, and their two teenage children. In 1996 their oldest son, Martin, was arrested for murder and later convicted. For the first couple of years after he was locked up, the family spent between $100 and $200 a month to talk to him--even when he was awaiting trial in Cook County Jail. "It's been hard on us," says Giron. "But we're caught between two walls. We want to talk to him." Last year Luis, a cook, quit his job for a better one, which later fell through. Twice since then the Girons haven't been able to scrape together enough money for the phone bill and have had their service disconnected.

The family got into the habit of neglecting other bills, and now they're behind on the mortgage and utilities. Martin, says Giron, "comes first. I don't want him to come out crazy or institutionalized, where he's good for nothing. I don't want him to wind up like where I work, where you just sit around, watch TV, get your three meals a day."

Martin has told her that inmates who have the least communication with the outside world seem to get into the most trouble. This isn't surprising to people who study the criminal justice system. A lot of research has shown that prisoners who remain close to family members throughout their incarceration have lower rates of recidivism.

With this in mind, prison activists across the country are questioning the wisdom of the way phone service works in prisons. Not only do they consider the high rates an obstacle to maintaining strong familial bonds and therefore preventing crime, but they see them as part of a disturbing trend in the corrections industry--corporations and the state increasingly relying on prisoners as a source of revenues.

Phone calls are one of the few ties prisoners have to relatives, who often live hundreds of miles away and can't visit regularly, if at all. With nearly two million people incarcerated across the country, prison phone service is an estimated billion-dollar-a-year industry; according to some reports, a company can take in $15,000 from a single prison pay phone--about five times the amount typically generated by a pay phone on the street. Fierce bidding wars for exclusive prison contracts have companies wooing states with large signing bonuses and commissions. In the early 1990s companies typically gave states 15 percent of their prison revenues; now it's 50 percent. A prison contract means easy money--there's a captive market, and the people paying for the calls are powerless to switch carriers if they're dissatisfied with rates or service. Last year the four companies that serve Illinois prisons--Ameritech, Consolidated Communications Public Services, MCI, and AT&T--handed the state nearly $12 million.

By accepting commissions, activists say, the state effectively drives up the rates and puts itself in the position of having an economic interest in incarcerating its citizens. "That should not be the role of the state," says Liz Goss of the Prison Phone Project, a joint venture of two local prison-reform groups, the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown and the Prison Action Committee. "It should not be in collusion with large corporations to make a profit off of the poorest people in the state." When public institutions get into bed with private, profit-driven corporations, Goss warns, "accountability gets lost."

Judy Pardonnet, spokesperson for the state's Central Management Services, which negotiates prison contracts, denies that a conflict of interest exists. "How can anyone say that for $12 million the state has an interest in incarcerating people when it spends $1.25 billion a year on housing these people? That's hardly a profit."

Most of the money from commissions, Pardonnet says, "goes right back into the very system that's supporting these people." According to her, the state gave $1.9 million of last year's commissions directly to the Illinois Department of Corrections, which, says department spokesman Nic Howell, went toward such things as drugs for HIV-positive inmates and upgrading the staff's radio communication system. The state earmarked $5.1 million for other corrections projects, such as video equipment for monitoring inmates, and dumped the rest into a general operations fund for its statewide communications network.

But where the money goes is beside the point to the inmates' relatives involved with the Prison Phone Project. They say they feel unfairly singled out to shoulder a financial burden that belongs to the state. The project's Josh MacPhee says, "It's like we're putting an extra tax on them for no other reason than that they have a family member in prison."

The families also feel taken advantage of by the phone companies--especially given ubiquitous commercials advertising flat long-distance rates of ten cents per minute. Mary Johnson, who has a son in prison, says, "We should not be discriminated against because of who we have a phone conversation with."

Brian Carr, president of Consolidated Communications Public Services, a regional company that serves 20 state prisons, defends the rates, saying, "There are extraordinary costs associated with providing service to inmates." He points out that the phone companies must pay a local exchange carrier for third-party billing on collect calls, that uncollectible debts on prison calls are "20 to 40 times higher" than on other calls, and that the company must share its revenue with the state. If the state awarded contracts without demanding 50 percent commissions, would the rates go down by half? "There'd be a substantial reduction, obviously," he says. Might a rate reduction trigger a reduction in bad debts? Carr says he doesn't know, but he's never known people with bad debts to offer to pay based on what they think would be reasonable rates.

Attorneys Michael Deutsch and Stephen Seliger are planning to file a class-action lawsuit in the next few weeks on behalf of the families involved with the Prison Phone Project. "I don't think you could say that the companies that deal with the prisons shouldn't make a profit," says Seliger, "but this is like gouging. You can't treat one class of people to a disadvantage."

Of course the phone companies consider the states--not the families--their customers. They lump the prison business in with other "aggregator businesses," the industry term for places that make their telecommunications services available to people temporarily residing there or just passing through, such as hotels and hospitals. But Seliger says the comparison isn't apt. "If you're in a hotel you don't have to use that phone. You can say it's too much money, I'm going to go outside, go down the street, make a call there--and you may decide to make a credit-card call because you have your own company." With the prison business, he argues, there's no consumer protection. "In a true free-market setting one party gives goods and tries to get the highest price possible, and another party pays for the goods and tries to get the lowest price possible. The problem with this situation is that there's no incentive on the part of either party that's negotiating the contracts to protect the people paying for the service."

While the Prison Phone Project's main goal is lower rates, it's also concerned with the quality and reliability of phone service. Part of the problem may be that the families and the Illinois Department of Corrections hold fundamentally different views about communication. To families, communication with loved ones is a right. To corrections officials, it's a privilege--one that sometimes needs to be restricted or revoked.

Inmates can't just pick up the phone, call whomever they choose, and hold a private conversation. They must provide the department with a list of up to 30 phone numbers they will want to call. The department then issues the inmate a personal identification number that can access only the numbers on the list. In the past, says IDOC's Howell, inmates dialed random numbers, hoping that eventually someone would accept the charges and talk with them. But the people bothered by these calls sometimes complained to the department, and the PIN lists seemed a perfect solution. Yet the families say the lists disrupt steady communication with their loved ones. Every time inmates get transferred--around 400 are transferred every week--phone privileges are revoked until the new institution approves their lists, which can take a couple of weeks. And when a family moves, it can take a month or so to get the new phone number on the list.

Also at issue is the recording of all nonattorney calls. Families consider this an invasion of privacy; the department considers it a necessary step to deter inmates from committing crimes over the phone--and a way to bust them if they do. "We've been able to develop information about criminal conspiracies, and we've prevented some crimes from taking place," says Howell, citing the case of Gustavo Colon, who incriminated himself on tape in 1997 while running a gang's drug operation from Menard Correctional Center.

Another source of irritation for the families is the recorded message that intermittently interrupts conversations to repeat what's stated clearly at the beginning of the call: that the call has originated from a prison and may be recorded. "It just comes on all of a sudden, about three times in 15 minutes," says Giron. "You can't converse--you have to wait." Consolidated's Carr says the recordings last only a few seconds and are a courtesy to unsuspecting people who might have been handed the phone in the middle of a call.

Many relatives say one of the most infuriating aspects of the prison phone service is that the calls automatically disconnect after 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the prison. Howell says the time limits are supposed to discourage inmates from tying up the lines while others are waiting. But nothing prevents an inmate, frustrated at being cut off mid sentence, from simply redialing--which tacks another hefty surcharge onto the bill. "No sooner you say, 'Hey baby,' than click," says Pepper XXX-Wilson, who talks to her husband in Stateville Correctional Center every other day. "He calls back four or five times sometimes, until he gets so steamed that he just refuses to call anymore." Between the 30-minute limit at Stateville and the recording that periodically interrupts them, says XXX-Wilson, "We can't even get a decent conversation." She still spends between $400 and $500 a month trying. "Lots of people are pissed off--and rightfully so," says the Prison Phone Project's Goss.

There's also some concern among lawyers that the current setup curtails prisoners' access to legal representation. Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers, a small organization that relies on grants and donations to stay afloat, used to accept collect calls from any woman in prison. But that got too expensive, and now CLAIM takes calls only from existing clients. "If a potential client knows of us and has an emergency situation and wants legal advice, she can't just call us up anymore," says Gail Smith, the executive director. The organization's efforts are further hampered because the phone companies recently changed the system for accepting collect calls. Where you used to be able to answer the prompt to accept charges for a collect call by saying yes or no, you now have to press a number. And the tones made by some phone setups--including CLAIM's--don't work. To get its system to work, CLAIM would have to do a major technological overhaul, which the organization can't afford. "Most of our contact with prisoners now is through writing or face-to-face, which has placed a terrible limitation on our ability to render services," says Smith. "It slows everything down, and that is a detriment to our clients."

The Prison Phone Project wants a number of reforms, among them a ten-cent-per-minute fee for collect calls from prisons and an end to revenue sharing, recorded interruptions, and disconnections that force the receiver to pay repeated surcharges. It also wants a committee to monitor the telephone companies' prison service to prevent abuses.

The project plans to target both the state and the companies. A few days before Valentine's Day a dozen members staged their first action: a small protest in front of the Thompson Center. They then made their way into the governor's office and handed the receptionist a bagful of Valentine's Day postcards asking the governor to put an end to the phone companies' and state's "heartless practice" of stealing money from the families and of "making huge profits from their misfortunes."

They also demanded a meeting with Governor George Ryan--which they happened to get on their way out. As they were exiting the elevators, Ryan and his entourage were entering. Someone thrust a postcard into his hand and said the group had just delivered a bunch of them to his office. "I'm gonna look at them," Ryan promised as the doors closed. "Thanks very much."

The Prison Phone Project believes this is a perfect time to begin a campaign. Similar protests and lawsuits are cropping up across the country, and a new Illinois House bill aims to restrict inmates to one phone call a month for the first six months of their incarceration. By passing such legislation, says Goss, the state would be actively engaged in keeping family members from talking to one another. "This seems counterproductive," she says, "not just for the families and prisoners, but for everybody in the community where that prisoner is going to be released back to."

The Prison Phone Project is keeping close tabs on a group in Michigan that's demanding an end to surcharges and the introduction of debit cards, which are used in federal prisons so that prisoners don't have to make collect calls. That group is doing six months of mailings, which will be followed in August by a monthlong boycott of phone calls made from prison--the first such boycott in the country. Prisoners will make calls as usual, but their relatives will refuse to accept the charges. In the past, says Penny Ryder, one of the coordinators of the campaign, inmates have been punished for starting boycotts. She says the state of Michigan receives "$16 million a year in kickbacks" from the phone companies and could lose a million dollars if the boycott is successful.

Guadalupe Giron is inspired by the swirl of activism. She attends Prison Phone Project meetings, plans to join the class-action lawsuit, and has offered to help translate the group's pamphlets into Spanish so the project can reach more people in the Latino community.

In February her son was transferred from Joliet to Pinckneyville, so she won't be able to visit him very often--he's now about 290 miles from Chicago. Shortly after he got there Giron received a call from one of his friends, who said that Martin had tried to call Giron on her birthday but hadn't been able to get through. When Giron called Consolidated, the phone company that serves Pinckneyville, she learned that it had blocked her line because she owed $197 on her last bill. She was informed that until she paid the charges she wouldn't be able to talk to her son.

The timing was particularly bad for the family. "We're three months behind in the mortgage," said an exasperated Giron. "If we don't come up with $1,000 in a couple weeks the house goes into foreclosure. There's no way we can pay the phone bill."

It has now been over a month since Giron has talked to her son. "It kills me," she says. "I worry a lot."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Guadalpupe Giron photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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