Group urging inmates' families to boycott collect calls

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- An Oklahoma group wants the families of Oklahoma prison inmates to forgo calling their incarcerated loved ones beginning Tuesday in protest of the high cost they pay to talk on the telephone. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections draws $1.5 million annually in revenue from commissions charged on inmates' collect calls, state records show. Families and friends of prisoners pay nearly $13 for a 15-minute long-distance call from prison under the agency's contracts with AT&T and Southwestern Bell.

David Miller, the Corrections Department's chief of administrative operations, said the agency is scrutinizing its charges. And an interim legislative study is examining the issue, too. Groups like the Oklahoma chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, allege the calls are a form of price gouging, and penalize those who had nothing to do with a crime. "It's not the inmates, it's the families that pay these prices," said Lynn Powell, president of Oklahoma's chapter of CURE, which is calling for a nationwide boycott.

Most prisons and jails in the United States limit prisoners to collect calls -- the most expensive type, the group says. Prisoners in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Mexico, New York, New Hampshire and Wisconsin have filed class-action lawsuits challenging high inmate phone rates as an unconstitutional hidden tax.

Under current law, no state or federal agency regulates prison phone systems, so the companies and state and county governments can charge whatever they want. The lawsuits challenge the deals under which a state or county government gets as much as 60 cents on the dollar from a telephone company that is given exclusive rights to handle all the calls from behind bars. AT&T and Southwestern Bell split telephone rights in Oklahoma's publicly operated prisons, which house about 15,000 inmates. Private prisons housing about 7,000 Oklahoma inmates negotiate their own telephone contracts with those two companies and others.

Under competitively bid contracts, the public prisons get a 45 percent commission from AT&T and a 35 percent commission from Southwestern Bell, corrections officials said. "It looks like it's all profits to us," Miller said of the $1.5 million. "But we're actually expending state funds for these telephone systems." Corrections officials don't know how much of the $1.5 million goes back into the system to pay for equipment and security monitoring. The $1.5 million is deposited into the agency's prison canteen fund, which in the recent session was tapped for $1 million for prison medical services.

One prisoner's mother, Cyndy Duncan, says her last long-distance bill totaled about $300. It's important to the Oklahoma City woman to hear from her 24-year-old son, Scott, who's serving time for second-degree burglary. "I want to know he's O.K.," she said. "There's a lot of things that go on behind the walls of these prisons that most of the public isn't privy to." Organizers of the boycott believe that inmates who maintain a positive relationship with family and friends do better when they are released back into society. Corrections officials agree, but say ideas like putting a pay telephone in the prison yard will interfere with prison security.

Prisons need phone systems that record inmate calls, block calls to certain numbers -- such as those of victims and judges – and require prisoners to enter individual identification numbers, they say. Duncan and others would like to buy their loved ones a "1-800"calling card and save the expense of collect dialing. But that would compromise security and not provide a money-making incentive for telephone companies to service prisons, corrections officials say. At least one Oklahoma private prison, the Great Plains Correctional Center in Hinton, has given inmates the option of buying debit cards. After three months, it seems to work, Warden Sam Calbone said.