OLYMPIA - After years of complaints that the state prison phone system gouges friends and family members of inmates, Washington is about to sign a contract that will sharply reduce phone charges for many in-state calls.
"This is critical," said Lisa Young, an Arlington woman whose longtime boyfriend is serving a prison sentence in Monroe. She said she's spending about $200 a month to stay in touch with him.
"You want to hear their voice," she said.
Under the current contract with AT&T, Department of Corrections spokesman Gary Larson said, a 20-minute call from, say, Airway Heights prison to family in Tacoma costs about $22. The new system, which will be in place by midsummer, would cut that to a flat rate of $3.15 to $3.50, depending on whether it's a collect call or paid out of new inmate phone accounts.
Families, inmates, advocates and clergy members have long complained that Washington's current rates -- the highest in the nation, according to one advocacy group -- weigh heavily on people struggling in stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones.
"They're ripping off the poorest of the poor," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, a Colville based group lobbying to reduce drug sentences. The group is one of many that have pushed for years to reduce phone costs.
"We've known people that have been evicted because their phone bills get so big," said Callahan "Or relationships disintegrate. You can't afford to pay the cost of the calls, but you can't bear to hang up on them."
On Friday, a Chicago-based private company, FSH Communications, inked a multiyear renewable contract with the state. Department of Corrections head Harold Clarke is expected to sign it soon.
For all intents and purposes, we've reached an agreement," said Larson. "It's just a matter of signing the document."
While in-state long-distance calls would be much cheaper, the bad news for inmates and their families is that local calls will cost more. Instead of the current $2, they'll also cost $3.15 to $3.50 per call -- the same as the new instate rate.
"The majority of offenders, over time, have a need for making long-distance calls," said Larson, citing the fact that the prison system often shifts inmates from one prison to another. "Even if today all the people they want to talk to are a short distance away. in the future that may not be the case."
And according to FSH. the rates will remain high -- $4.95 for the first minute, then 9 cents a minute - for long-distance calls to other states. International calls will also remain expensive. Those rates couldn't he capped because they involve different phone service providers, FSH sales director Dana Alixander said Friday.
According to the national inmate-advocacy group Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, Washington is currently tied with Arizona for the highest prison phone costs in America.
"I think this is probably the largest complaint we hear, next to poor medical care," said Callahan, whose brother is serving time in prison. It's the most important thing in the world to call home. You worry because you don't hear from the person. And it's different from a letter. Voice is much different."
"No matter how much it costs, you'll pay it. You'll work extra hours," said Young, who with her daughter is renting a room in a friend's house. "I need to know he's OK, and he needs to know I'm OK."
One key part of the new contract is that it guarantees that the state will continue to make millions of dollars from inmate calls. The AT&T contract guaranteed the state 40 percent of the cost of calls, which added up to more than $3.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2005.
A quarter of that money goes to a state fund for victims and witnesses; the rest goes into the prison systems "Offender Betterment Fund." Corrections officials say the fund pays for things that taxpayers used to, such as community-area televisions, ice machines, books, sewing machines, holiday treats, and children's toys for prison visiting rooms. The new contract. Larson said, guarantees the state $5.1 million a year.
The new phone system will have all the same security features as the old one, Larson and Alixander said. Calls -- except for legal conversations -- can be monitored and recorded. They'll include an announcement that the call is coming from a prisoner. With the push of a button, people getting an unwanted call can block such calls in the future.
They can detect attempts to route a call through a third party, Alizander said, and can automatically detect spoken "key words" and alert prison officials. Prisoners will have a list of 20 to 25 authorized numbers they can dial. And to prevent misuse of phone accounts by other inmates, the phones will have a voice-recognition system.
Unlike the current system, the new phones won't require collect calls. Inmates, friends or family members will be able to add money to prepaid phone accounts, Larson said .
Advocates say that maintaining connections with family and friends is critical for inmates when they get out, as most do.
"The more we can keep imprisoned people in touch with their families, the fewer problems they'll have when those people are released," said Callahan.
Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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