Inmates' families complaining about high cost of phone calls

Sunday, October 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Prison inmates' families say it's so expensive to take their calls they sometimes don't answer the phone.

The complaints have prompted lawmakers to investigate whether state officials allow phone companies to charge excessive rates.

The phone system generates $2 million for the state Corrections Department and less than $1 million for the state general revenue fund, officials said. The money comes from collect calls from Oklahoma prisons.

"I'm just going to keep picking up cans so I can talk to my son," said Bea Hazley, the mother of a prisoner who said she sometimes tries to avoid answering the phone because of the high costs.

Two bills about the phone system were introduced into the Legislature earlier this year. House Bill 1552 by Rep. Judy McIntyre, D-Tulsa, would have eliminated state commissions and forced phone companies to charge rates similar to those paid by residential customers.

Advocates and family members packed a room at the state Capitol last week for a meeting of the House Corrections Committee, which is studying the system. Families brought phone bills they say are common for relatives of the thousands of Oklahoma inmates, who aren't allowed to use calling cards or any other cheaper method.

"We've got a captive audience," said Rep. Ron Kirby, D-Lawton, who requested the study. "And we're gouging them. We're taking terrific advantage of them."

The costs for each call -- which Kirby said are as much as $7.95 for a connect fee and as much as 89 cents per minute -- are higher than other calls because more security is needed, such as recording each call, said Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the state Corrections Department.

"It does create a hardship on the families if they don't have the money to pay for it," Massie said. "But they control that with their ability to not pick up the phone calls. There's other ways to communicate."

Nearly 40 states are studying inmate phone systems, according to The Campaign to Promote Equitable Phone Charges, an offshoot of the national Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. The organization is calling for more competitive phone services, the ability of inmates to dial toll-free numbers and allowing calling card calls.

"Why should the state receive a profit off the family phone calls -- that's an extra tax," said Lynn Powell, president of OK-CURE, the state chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants.

Inmates need contact with their families, Powell said. She said more than 90 percent of inmates will someday be released, and a good family support group will keep former prisoners from returning to prison.

The state Corrections Department gets 45 percent of money spent on each call. Some states, such as Nebraska, have quit taking commissions.