Thursday, January 29, 2004 - Spokesman-Review (WA)
Bill Would Reduce Inmates' Phone Fees
Required collect calls are burden for families
By Richard Roesler, Staff writer
OLYMPIA -- For the past six years, every time Caron Berrysmith's son called her for 20 minutes, it cost nearly $20.
Here's why: He's a state prison inmate.
Under state law, prisoners in Washington can only call collect. It's a lucrative deal for both phone companies and the state, which gets back about 40 percent of the phone charges. But at a time when it's easy for consumers to find long-distance phone service at a nickel or less per minute, prisoners' friends and families are paying up to $5.31 for the first minute and 89 cents a minute after that.
"That's insane," said Tom Murlowski, with the Colville-based November Coalition, a prisoner-advocacy group. "Essentially, these companies are gouging prisoners and their families."
Even the state Department of Corrections, which signs the contracts, says the phone rates are too expensive.
"It's very high, compared to what you and I pay," deputy Secretary of Corrections Eldon Vail said Tuesday. "It's a lot."
Now, as a five-year contract with AT&T comes to an end, the department and state lawmakers say it's time to find a cheaper way for inmates to stay in touch with their families and friends.
Senate Bill 6352 would erase the requirement for collect calls. Modern phone technology can provide the same security, phone companies say, and at a much lower cost. The bill would allow prisoners to use prepaid phone cards or a debit system funded by their families or their wages doing prison work. The current security rules -- all calls are recorded, can be monitored, and must carry an announcement that it's a call from a prisoner -- would remain the same.
Family members of prisoners say such a change is long overdue.
"The price is really prohibitive," said Zady Evans, a Seattle minister whose 34-year-old grandson is imprisoned on drug charges at Aberdeen. The cost now, she said, ensures that prisoners' struggling families remain poor.
"They (inmates) call their families and it costs the families, but they want to talk to their children," she said.
Berrysmith knows that dilemma firsthand. Her son is serving 20 years for bank robbery, and at 63, she's living in Seattle on less than $600 a month from Social Security. Her son's occasional calls from the state penitentiary at Walla Walla sometimes left her struggling to keep up with her bills. Her usual strategy: Pay only part of the power bill.
"Sometimes you just want to hear somebody's voice," she said. "We just try to tell each other to stay strong."
This winter, her son was transferred to Monroe, close to Seattle. It's now about $10 per call, she said.
"It's still too much," she said, "but it's less."
In 2001, the state made nearly $5 million from inmate phone calls. One quarter of that money goes to a fund for crime victims. The rest is spent on inmate extras like TVs, law librarians, ice machines, gym equipment, books, sewing machines, holiday treats, music and children's toys for prison visiting rooms. In years past, Vail said Tuesday, taxpayers ended up footing the bill for such things.
For the last two years, prison phone fees have dropped sharply, shrinking the state's share to $3.3 million last year. Vail said the department isn't sure why, although it suspects that some inmate families are using phone companies that bypass the direct collect call system by forwarding the call through a local phone number near the prison.
Lobbyists for several phone companies, including AT&T, Qwest and MCI, testified in favor of the bill Tuesday. What would really reduce the cost for inmates' friends and families, one lobbyist pointed out, is if the state would reduce or eliminate its 40 percent cut of the fees. Vail said the state is willing to reduce it.
Some friends and relatives of prisoners also argue that it's smart for the state to make it easier for inmates to stay in touch. Eventually, they say, most will get out of prison, and those with strong support stand the best chance of success.
"The prison world is a different world. They live within this system for year after year, and then they're booted outside. They have to have that contact," said Evans.
Richard Roesler can be reached at 360-664-2598 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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