Soon to be Featured in the San Francisco Chronicle
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Over the past few years, as phone companies such as AT&T, MCI, and Sprint have struck "sweetheart" deals with both State and Federal prisons, providing security phones for collect-calling, complete with obnoxious recordings that remind you at random intervals the call is originating from a correctional institution, a new scandal has developed. With any State or Federal Agency, work orders are customarily submitted for outside bids, with the low bidder normally winning the contract for the job. However, in the case of prison phones, the highest bidder is usually awarded the job with the stipulation that a portion of the collect charges are kicked back to the prison system. These kickbacks are normally between 30% and 50% of the total bill. And, no matter what CDC apologists like Tip Kindell or Christine May might claim, these kickbacks, amounting to millions of dollars annually, are not earmarked for the inmate welfare fund, but are mingled with the Dept. of Corrections General Fund.
Over the past few years, I have seen the cost of collect prison calls placed through MCI rise from $3 for a 15-minute call to $9 to $12, depending on the time of day. Sadly, these outrageous charges are bilked from those with the least ability to pay. Inmates' families are often impoverished, or may be heavily depleted of resources due to the high cost of assisting with trial expenses. Nevertheless, few complain, in that it seems that Departments of Corrections, along with so-called crime victims' advocacy groups feel that the punishment for the sins of convicts should also be visited on their families and friends. The attacks on families of inmates conducted by the California Department of Corrections are legion; too numerous to mention on this page.
Recently, a few companies have sprung up that offered to set up special lines for inmate loved-ones to call on, taking the call out of the MCI (or whatever) system, and route it to you on an alternative, lower-cost long-distance line. While this system usually works, the companies offering the service soon found themselves with far more orders than they could service, resulting in dissatisfied customers.
Nevertheless, the service they offered was valid. While inmates do not have any choice as to which service to use, we, the paying public do. I have discovered that the service the alternative companies were performing for inmate families is actually something that any of us can duplicate with just a few phone calls, saving weeks of waiting, and sometimes hundreds of dollars per month in artificially inflated phone rates.
First, you need to get the area code and phone number of the prison where your loved one is incarcerated. Then, you need to call directory assistance and ask for the phone number of the local phone company that would service that local exchange. Ask them to establish a local phone number for you that would ordinarily be toll-free from that prison's phone number. This local line must include automatic call-forwarding to your home phone number. You'll want to make sure it's unlisted, since anyone who calls it will be able to ring through to your number at your expense. You also want to be absolutely sure that the company doesn't inadvertently add on collect-call blocking.
You then need to inform that company what long-distance service to include for your remote-forwarding line. This is where a little homework on your part will pay off. The choice will be entirely yours, but I can pass on a few suggestions. If, for example, the majority of the calls you accept are on weekends, you might actually want to choose MCI, since their weekend rates are 5? per minute. This will give you the added satisfaction of using MCI's own services to defeat their rip-off scheme.
In addition, I know of a few very low-cost long-distance services you can use to greatly lower not only the cost of the collect calls, but for all your bills. For example, Eclipse Telecommunications offers rates from 8.9? to 10.9? per minute, depending on the duration of the contract you sign with them. You can reach them at (800) 422-1199 to set everything up. Remember, you'll need to get their 5-digit carrier code to pass along to the local phone company. In addition, there's a new service called "New Success" that you can sign up for on line, but remember to print out the form and FAX it to them to complete your connection. Inasmuch as they take up to 3 weeks to complete your connection, it's not a wise idea to order their service until your line is in working order. But, with the free "800" numbers they offer (so does Eclipse, by the way), it may be well worth the wait. Their rates are 7.5? per minute, 24-hours per day. With New Success, you'll be able to earn commissions signing up people on line. The small commissions I earn if you sign up with them will assist in Andrea's defense, but please be assured you are free to use any long distance service you prefer. Neither of these services will charge you a monthly access fee, but, once again, it's better to establish your line before ordering their services.
To find out if you can save money by establish a remote line, it's best to get out your calculator and do some simple math. How many calls do you receive per month? Add up the charges. MCI collect calls from prisons seem to average $10 for me, so my cost, if Andrea calls me once per week, will be around $40 per month. This is very conservative, as I'm sure most of you will agree. The local phone company will charge you anywhere between $5 and $18 per month for the line, plus $1 for the automatic call-forwarding feature. General Telephone in Corona, California charged me $85 in installation fees for the line, but Pacific Bell in Chowchilla only charged me $5, so the variance is quite large. Collect calls fees will be charged to the local phone company, rather than to MCI, so rather than pay the $3 connect fee, plus 50? per minute, you'll probably pay between $1 and $2 for the call, plus sometimes 3? or 4? per minute. You'll also pay the long distance charge for the service you select for call forwarding. So, if the local company charges you $2 average for the call, and you talk for 15 minutes at 10? per minute, your charges will be $3.50 per call, as opposed to the $7 to $10 you're paying now. Add in the cost of the monthly fee for the local line and you'll see the break-even point will be 3 to 4 calls per month. Beyond that you'll save big time! In addition, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that not one penny of your hard-earned money will go to the Department of Corruptions!
I should also caution you that anyone calling your remote number will be able to ring through to your home. It is therefore unavoidable that you'll get a few wrong numbers or pesky sales calls, and there is no way to avoid the one-minute charges you'll pay. However, this should rarely amount to more than $1 per month.
Some states, I'm told, have systems that will disconnect your call if call-forwarding is detected. California will disconnect your call if you answer your call-waiting, or if you attempt 3-way calling, but call-forwarding is allowed. I realize, however, that I am taking a risk in posting this information, in that the Dept. may find a way to block call-forwarding. However, if they do, it will demonstrate their contempt for inmates families. This system in no way disables or circumvents any of their mandatory security systems. You'll still hear those obnoxious recordings, since they're built into the prison phones! So, there is no legitimate reason for Corrections to block these calls. We, as consumers, have the right to choose our long-distance service, and if we are blocked from this, we have the right to file class-action litigation.
If you only receive one or two calls per month, it will not be cost-effective for you to set up a remote-calling line, unless you wish to increase your calls at substantial savings. But, I sincerely hope that everyone who can benefit will put forth the effort to set up this system. In so doing, you will benefit even those who receive calls too infrequently to participate. MCI, faced with competition, will be forced to lower their rates. They will only be able to do this by discontinuing their unethical kick-back scheme to prisons.
I want to add that in California, a drive is underway charging MCI with overcharging on collect calls. If you would like to participate, here is the information I just received via e-mail:
November 17, 1998
Re: MCI Profits From Calls from CA Prisons.
I work with UCAN -- the Utility Consumers' Action Network -- San Diego. We are a non-profit pro-consumer organization with a 15 year history of defending consumers. I am also an activist on prison issues.
I also am the person who first alerted the SF Chronicle to MCI's wrongdoing. I was informed via a family member of someone who was defrauded by MCI.
We are looking to file a formal complaint -- the equivalent of a regulatory law suit -- against MCI for overbilling families of prisoners in CA prisons.
If you have been overcharged or defrauded by MCI -- and want to come forward -- please let me know!
On behalf of UCAN
If you personally have any stories of MCI abuse regarding collect calls from inmates in California, Deborah Solomon from the San Francisco Chronicle would like to hear from you for the article she is preparing. You may call her during normal business hours at (800) 499-5700, extension 5134.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions as to how to set up your remote line, or on any other prison or Andrea-related subjects! And, please peruse the rest of this site if you haven't yet done so!
Important Update: (April 9th, 1999) Charlie Sparks, who owns the site "Pennpals," has posted some great supplemental information to this page on a page entitled "Break the Prisons' Collect Call Monopoly." Please click on to this page for a further explanation of remote call forwarding. As of April 9th, Charlie has informed me that he can no longer do the setting up for people as he was getting too overwhelmed, but he has posted a lot more helpful instructions on his site for setting up your own line.
I have now used my own remote line for 6 months, and can give you a much better idea of the savings, but keep in mind it will vary from area to area. Pacific Bell in Central California charges me $3 for the collect connection, so there is no savings for me there. However, my per-minute charge with "new success" is down to 7.5? per minute from the 50? to $1 I was paying with MCI. The average cost of my calls has gone from $12 to $4 for a 15-minute call. Combine that with the $18 per month it costs me for the line, and you can see I'm saving with 2 calls per week or more. Some of you will do better than me, and others may do worse.
However, I just talked with Deborah Solomon with the San Francisco Chronicle. She has some startling statistics, and a very revealing expose' will be appearing in the Chronicle within 2 weeks. MCI, in it's "sweetheart" deal with the Dept. of Corrections kicks back 44% of every dollar it makes to the DOC. Set up your own line, and you'll be depriving the prison system wherever you are of it's ill-gotten gains. Keep in mind that the kick-back percentages will vary from state to state, and there are some areas where the kick-back percentage is as high as 60%! I have even heard from people who are spending more for remote call-forwarding than they were just accepting the MCI calls, but prefer to do so in order to deprive the prison systems of funds. I salute this!
Collect call gouging is rampant in every state! Read this article I recently discovered from the Philadelphia Enquirer:
COLLECT CALLS COST PA. INMATES MORE FAMILIES PAY; THE STATE BENEFITS.
By Karen E. Quiones Miller, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
One of the boys was 6 when his mother was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, but he can remember laughing and playing with her. The other was 3 and can barely recall her face or her touch.
Both boys know her voice, however. At least once a week, Dannielle Hadley calls collect from the state Correctional Institution at Muncy, where she is serving a life sentence. For 5, 10 or 15 minutes, she talks to sons Dorian and Jonathan, now teenagers, and her mother, Mae Hadley, who is raising the boys in Southwest Philadelphia.
The calls cost Mae Hadley more than $95 last month, but she says they are necessary. ``It's important for the children,'' she said, ``because no matter what, that's their mother.''
The calls, like those placed by thousands of other inmates across the country, are more expensive than collect calls made outside prison walls. Much more.
AT&T, MCI and other carriers have higher surcharges and higher per-minute rates for inmates' collect calls than for everyone else's. In part, that is because Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other states require long-distance carriers to give the state a percentage of their revenue from inmate calls.
In awarding exclusive contracts for prison phone service, states pick the companies offering the most lucrative deals - provided they also have state-of-the-art technology to prevent credit-card fraud and other phone scams.
State officials say this is a legitimate way to generate revenue and offset some prison costs. Phone company executives say the steeper charges are needed to pay for the antifraud systems.
Prisoner advocates and public utility watchdogs see the situation differently. They say inmates' relatives are being gouged. ``This practice has the effect of imposing a very heavy financial burden on the families of inmates who want to maintain spoken contact with their loved ones,'' said Gerald Norlander, deputy director of the Public Utility Project in Albany, N.Y., a consumer watchdog.
The cost of the phone conversations between Dannielle Hadley, 34, and her sons is paid by Mae Hadley, 58, who has a low-wage job at a bindery. ``I'm on a small budget, and it's hard keeping up with these bills. But I have no choice,'' she said. ``It's the only way we can hear her voice and she can hear ours.''
States hire long-distance carriers for prisons with an eye toward reaping revenue.
In Pennsylvania, AT&T hands over half the money it gets from inmates' long-distance calls. New York state collects a 40 percent commission from MCI. Sprint pays Michigan 34 percent. MCI pays Florida a 50 percent commission, and California, 43 percent. Last year, New York collected more than $20 million in commissions. Michigan picked up $9.5 million; Florida, $13 million; California, $18.7 million; and Pennsylvania, $6 million.
Matt Davis, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said his state used some of the money to pay county prisons for housing state inmates. The rest goes into the state's general fund. Davis said he had no compunctions about the higher rates for inmate calls.
``We're talking about murderers and rapists. They took from society, and now it's time they gave something back,'' he said. ``We give them a warm, dry, safe place to sleep, safer than some of the places they come from, and that costs money. And we're going to find ways, like this, to get money.''
Pennsylvania corrections officials say that in claiming a share of revenue from inmate calls, they are simply following the example of prison systems elsewhere and many private and public institutions with large numbers of coin telephones. Philadelphia International Airport is such an institution. AT&T pays the airport a 29 percent commission and the city an 18 percent commission on collect calls made from the airport.
Pennsylvania divides the commission money from prisoner calls between the state's general fund and an inmates' welfare and recreational fund.
``That fund pays for books for prison libraries, basketballs and other recreational equipment, and outside speakers who talk to inmates about various issues,'' said Allison Delsite, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.
The state's 24 prisons have 1,277 telephones accessible to inmates. All of them are owned by AT&T, which has a contract with the state that expires at the end of this year. Inmates have no choice but to use the carrier for long-distance calls. Prisoners are not allowed to receive calls and can place only collect calls. They cannot use calling cards.
When making a call, a prisoner punches in an inmate ID number. The antifraud system checks the number being called to make sure it's one of the 15 numbers the prisoner has cleared with authorities - no 800 or 900 numbers allowed.
The automated phone systems used by correctional facilities inform the receiving party in advance of the collect charges, but family members know the inmate does not have the option of using a cheaper carrier.
Here is how the rates differ for inmates and non-inmates.
A 15-minute collect call to Philadelphia from Muncy, near Williamsport, placed at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, costs $7.05. The total represents a $3.00 surcharge plus 27 cents per minute. The same call made outside the prison through 1-800-CALL-ATT - the carrier's automated long-distance service - would cost $4.79. This represents a $1.79 surcharge and 20 cents per minute. Bottom line: The prisoner's call costs 47 percent more.
The gap is wider for longer calls. If a caller using 1-800-CALL-ATT talked for 30 minutes, the call would cost $6.29. Because inmates' calls are automatically terminated at 15 minutes, an inmate would have to make a second collect call, again incurring a surcharge. The total for the 30-minute conversation would be $14.10 - more than double what would be charged a non-inmate.
States have long collected commissions for inmate calls, said John Malcolm, manager of telephone technology service for the state Department of General Services, which negotiates the long-distance contract for state prisons. But it was not until the mid- to late-1980s, after the breakup of AT&T and the deregulation of coin telephones, that correctional facilities began realizing a lot of money from the arrangements, Malcolm said.
Norlander, the Albany, N.Y., consumer advocate, who has researched prison phone policies, said commissions skyrocketed when MCI and Sprint began bidding for state correctional contracts in the 1990s.
``Normally, we want competition in bidding because the practice will serve to obtain vendors who will provide the most efficient service for the most efficient price,'' he said. ``But here the competition is not to provide the most reasonably priced telephone service; it's a competition to see who can pay the state the most money, and that itself drives the collect-call prices higher.''
In Virginia, complaints over surcharges on inmate calls prompted state legislators to demand that the state negotiate a new contract with MCI two years ago. ``When we realized that the commonwealth was making a lot of money off the existing contract, we decided something had to be done,'' said State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., a Fairfax County Democrat. ``It is terrible policy for the commonwealth to be making money off the suffering of inmate families.''
Under the new contract, the surcharge per inmate call dropped from $3 to $2.25, Gartlan said.
Jean Auldridge, director of the Virginia chapter of Citizens for the Rehabilitation of Errants, an inmate advocacy group that pushed for the change, said the state also accepted a reduction in its commission on prisoner calls - from 50 percent to 33 percent.
Martha Early would like to see something similar happen in Pennsylvania. Early, 86, is a retired domestic worker who lives in West Philadelphia with her 82-year-old brother. ``Auntie Bey,'' as she is known in the neighborhood, lives on a fixed income and is struggling to make ends meet. Still, she canot bear to decline the collect calls from grandson Alvin Davis, an inmate at Camp Hill Prison.
``We get on the telephone and talk about little things, like who's doing what in the family, and how everybody is doing. I just love to be able to speak to him,'' she said. ``Those calls cost like $6 or $7 and that's not real expensive, but they add up.''
William Goldsby, co-chairman of Rights for Lifers Inc., a prisoner advocacy group in Philadelphia, said that staying in touch is important for loved ones, but even more important for those behind bars. ``It gives them a connection with the real world that is vitally important,'' he said.
AT&T says the higher charges on inmate calls stem solely from the cost of antifraud equipment required at correctional facilities. ``We have to go out and buy it from a vendor and install and maintain it, all at our own cost,'' said AT&T spokesman Andy Boisseau.
James Burton, president of Telequip Labs of Richardson, Texas, which sells antifraud equipment to AT&T and other carriers, took issue with that assertion. He said the high charges on inmate calls could not be attributed to the cost of the equipment. ``In recent years, the price of the equipment has dropped significantly, and you haven't seen the surcharge go down,'' he said.
Mae Hadley said she hoped someone - anyone - would do something about the rates. ``It's a struggle and a hardship to pay these bills, but there's no way I'm going to tell her not to call because my bill is too high,'' she said. ``It's a shame. She's suffering. I'm suffering. Everyone suffers. Especially the children.
Telephone Humor From Our Resident Advisor, Conny the Con!
Black Leaders Attack Prison Phone Costs
New Yorkers Asked to Boycott MCI Over State Services
March 9, 2000 By Howard Stier NEW YORK (APBnews.com) -- Angered by the high cost of collect phone calls for state prisoners, a coalition of black community leaders and clergy is taking on global phone giant MCI, requesting a boycott of the nation's second-largest long-distance provider."The state of New York and MCI are getting fat off black men and women in jail," said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts from the pulpit of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "Until we begin to withhold our support from MCI, business will go on as usual." Preaching to a standing room-only crowd at a recent Sunday service, Butts explained that the cost of calls from prisons is an unfair financial burden on New York's black community. "If I am in jail and I've got to talk to my mama, the only way for me to call my mama is to call her collect," Butts said. "MCI charges me four times the amount of a normal long-distance call, and the charge doesn't come to me, it comes to my mama. You wonder why you call someone and the phone is always temporarily disconnected. It's because they're receiving phone calls from their children." 'We just bid on the contract' An MCI spokesman said the company should not be held accountable for any perceived price gouging. "The rates are set by the state," said Daniel Davie, a spokesman for MCI WorldCom. "We just bid on the contract." Davie said he could not comment on the merits of the announced boycott. MCI, which has an exclusive deal with New York to be the sole phone service provider for its 70 state prisons, shares the profits of phone service with the State Department of Correctional Services. Calls are not a right The state earns an approximate $20 million profit from prison phone service annually, said Jim Flateau, a spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services. He said the New York prison collect-call rates are not excessive when compared to other states. "The rates are cheaper than those in prisons in California and Wisconsin," Flateau told APBnews.com. "Phone calls are not a constitutionally guaranteed right; they're a privilege. If they don't want to avail themselves of the privilege of calling, they don't have to." 'End MCI's peculiar arrangement' But boycott leaders say the issue is not the right of prisoners to make calls but the burden on families who are stuck footing phone bills that run into the hundreds of dollars. "This is another example of aggression against the black community," said radio personality Bob Law of WWRL, a black-owned radio station in New York. "Since protests are insufficient, we will be asking blacks and all people of good will to disconnect from MCI." "Black consumers must use their economic power to end MCI's peculiar arrangement," added Law, who previously has led economic boycotts in New York to protest racism.
Law said the boycott grew out of a plan by inmates' families to get prisoners to forgo calling home on Valentine's Day, an action that was scrapped because it was learned that it is illegal for prisoners to organize in any way.
Howard Stier is an APBnews.com correspondent in New York.