DOJ officials scramble to recommend prison phone policy changes

By Dena M. Henderson


Last week while net surfing I stumbled across two articles dated August 13, 1999 about prisoners using pay phones to plan crimes. Both articles referred to a 150-page study released the day before by Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich of the Department of Justice. I was concerned over the tone of these articles so I sought and found the study cited.
In summary, the DOJ sent questionnaires to 94 US Attorneys' Offices (USAO), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) headquarters for distribution to all FBI and DEA field offices, and 66 Bureau of Prison (BOP) facilities.

They visited nine BOP facilities, interviewed 70 BOP employees, and 20 DOJ employees. Case studies and procedures for inmate telephone use were reviewed. The report stated that they received information from 72 USAOs, 16 FBI field offices, and 11 DEA field offices and I quote, "Because these organizations do not index cases according to whether they took place in prison or involved the use of telephones, their responses to our questionnaires were based more on the recollection of the people who filled them out rather than on any comprehensive statistical review."

They went on to say that 117 crimes were committed by prisoners using pay phones in recent years; however, the study does not provide an estimate of how often such crimes occur because federal agencies do not keep data on inmates who use phones to commit crimes nor did it define "recent years". It is interesting to note that out of the now 1.9 million persons behind bars, the reported statistics of the study showed only 28 cases of such phone abuse since 1997 and another 18 cases currently under investigation. I'm no mathematician but that means only .00255% of the 1.8 million incarcerated persons have been investigated for phone crimes.

There we have it, and so for a .00255% possible phone-crime rate, we now have government recommendations to address the issue:

1) limiting the number of phone calls all inmates can make,

2) limiting the hours of telephone operation available to inmates,

3) implementing regulations that permit restriction of inmate telephone privileges as a matter of classification, and

4) introducing legislation to permit court orders in all cases in which the government can make a showing that the defendant should not be entitled to telephone privileges because of a prior history of telephone abuse.

The kicker is that the DOJ wants to seek legislation to authorize the funds for the additional staff needed to increase the 3.5% inmate phone call monitoring rate and the new high tech telephone monitoring systems with the proceeds made from inmate telephone usage. It cited $71 million in profit was raked in from the prison telephone system during the past seven years. It comes down to money yet again. Punish many because of a few and make the prisoners fund the whole thing.

What I recommend:
I suggest that we nip this in the bud. Inform the inmates of what the DOJ is proposing so they in turn can inform their loved ones. Then have those loved ones start writing letters and making phones calls to the DOJ, the BOP, the ACLU of the state where you reside as well as of the state where your loved one resides, State and US Senators, State and US Representatives, and do not forget to call your religious leaders. Send letters to the editor of your local paper. If there is a federal prison in your area, write to them. If you know of another group advocating prisoner's rights, write to them as well.

It's bad enough that our loved ones have been physically removed from our lives, but further restricting our contact with them via the telephone because of a few abusers is going too far. The few minutes phone call time we have with our loved ones in prison is for far too many of us, the only personal contact we have.

How can the DOJ and BOP claim to promote family and community ties when they shuffle our loved ones all over the country, making visiting more difficult, and now they attempt to severely restrict our phone calls? This policy would only serve to cut family and community ties rather than strengthen them, and I for one will not stand for it.

If you would like to get involved in this issue and have electronic mail you can e-mail me at:

Next issue of the Razor Wire we will publish our report and additional action plans. Dena Henderson resides in Richmond, VA. where she works full-time for the State of Virginia as a computer graphics specialist. A member of the November Coalition, FAMM, ACLU of VA, and a self-proclaimed libertarian, she became an informed citizen through her lifelong friend David, incarcerated since 1988 and currently at Edgefield, SC FCI.