Prison Phones Generate Less Money Than Hoped

Texas prisoners have made and received more than 4.7 million telephone calls and sent and received 1.8 million e-mails since 2009, when the state became the last in the nation to allow inmates phone and e-mail access.

The calls and messages haven’t added up to much in the way of revenue, though. The $6 million the inmate phone and messaging system generated for the state, according to information obtained under Texas open records law, is far less than the tens of millions of dollars some lawmakers had hoped to realize. And it’s smaller even than more conservative estimates made by the state budget board before lawmakers voted to allow access. Inmates’ family members say the state could make a lot more money and further decrease the smuggling of cell phones into prisons with just a couple of changes to the phone policy. And the lawmaker whose bill originally created the phone and e-mail program says the Texas Department of Criminal Justice needs to re-evaluate the operation. “They’re just going to need to re-examine, particularly in these tough budget times,” says state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. “I think there’s effective ways for us to maximize the program.”

Lawmakers approved Van de Putte’s SB 1580 in 2007, requiring the TDCJ to find a company to install pay phones that inmates could use to keep in touch with family and others who form support systems for them outside prison walls. Before that, inmates could make only one five-minute phone call every three months. Van de Putte says she wrote the bill after watching a family member wait at her phone for weeks at a time, refusing to leave the house and bathing in the middle of the night, just in case her loved one called from prison. “We’re no different, as legislators, from everybody else,” she says. “We go through our trials and tribulations.”

TDCJ, Van de Putte says, resisted the plan to install phones, but lawmakers passed the measure, hoping it would generate money for the Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund, cut down on the number of cell phones illegally smuggled into prisons and become a useful behavior management tool for jailers. A House Research Organization report from 2007 said the system was expected to generate $25 million to $30 million annually for the state. A more conservative estimate in the Fiscal Note that accompanied the legislation projected the program would make more than $7.5 million each year for the crime victims’ fund.

The first phones in TDCJ facilities were installed in March 2009, and the system was completed in December 2009. To use the phones, prisoners may not have a record of major disciplinary infractions. And gang-affiliated offenders and those on death row aren’t allowed access. Offenders and their friends and family members pay up to 26 cents per minute for in-state phone calls and up to 43 cents per minute for out-of-state calls. For the cost of a stamp, 44 cents, offenders can also send an electronic message. TDCJ staff monitor all calls and messages, and prisoners can only use the system to communicate with the 10 people who are already on their approved visitation list. 

Over the course of a year and nine months, the 6.5 million calls and messages generated a total of more than $15 million. The contractor that runs the system, Embarq, kept about 60 percent of the revenue, more than $9 million. The remaining $6 million went to the crime victims’ fund. That’s about half what the program was expected to bring in during a two-year period.

Most prisoners and their families appreciate the new system, particularly since it took so long to get, says Susan Fenner, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, a support group for families with loved ones in Texas prisons. But the system could be made better for inmates and generate more money for the state, she says. A major problem, Fenner says, is that prisoners can only make calls to and receive calls from land line phones, not cell phones. “To have a land line is hard for a of lot people, because they have mostly given up land lines because it’s too expensive to have it and a cell phone,” she says. Another problem is that inmates can only communicate with the 10 people TDCJ has approved for visitation. One prisoner wanted to receive calls from his ill mother in Washington state, who was not on his visitation list because she couldn’t travel to see him. The prisoner, Fenner says, had to remove from his visitation list a person who was able to come to him so that he could add his mother to the list. Still, Fenner says she thinks the phone and e-mail privileges are a good behavior incentive for prisoners. “I think it helps,” she says.

Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, says the agency doesn’t allow calls to and from cell phones because the devices are harder to track than land lines. It’s harder for officials to know who is on the other end of the line. “By their nature, they’re mobile and they pose a unique security challenge for us,” Clark says. And TDCJ only allows prisoners to communicate with people on the visitation list because the agency has already vetted them for security. The goal, he says, is to ensure that offenders aren’t using the phones and e-mail messages to continue a life of crime while they are incarcerated. “We had to have a strong policy in place so we could make sure offenders were not going to misuse the system,” he says. The department realizes the system hasn’t generated the hoped-for revenue, but Clark says the numbers are improving. "We've seen steady growth," he says. And cell phone confiscations have dropped during the last calendar year, he says. TDCJ staff confiscated or intercepted more than 1,480 cell phones in 2009. Last year, the number fell to 1,193, though Clark says TDCJ attributes the decrease in cell phone smuggling to additional security measures, including more surveillance cameras and orifice-scanning devices.

Criminal justice advocates say the communication system isn’t just about money or security. It’s also about offender rehabilitation and helping to ensure their success once they are released from prison. Inmates who are able to build and maintain relationships with family and friends are less likely to commit future offenses and land back behind bars, says Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. If TDCJ adopts policies that maximize communication with the outside world, she says, the state can make money on the phone system, reduce crime and save funds it would otherwise spend re-incarcerating people. “Having good, positive, close relationships with people on the outside is a really important key to re-entry,” she says.

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