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WA Prison Telemarketing Elicits Controversy - Again

In December 1997 and January 1998, statewide media attention spotlighted a "shocking" prison tele- marketing partnership between the Washington state Parks and Recreation Department and the Department of Corrections (DOC) Correctional Industries (CI). For two years prisoners at Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) manned the Parks Department's toll-free information hotline. Callers to the 1-800 number had no way of knowing that the person they spoke with (and who took their address to mail them Parks Department brochures) was in fact a prisoner, not a Parks Department employee.

The prisoners were paid between 40¢ and $1.10 an hour, which cuts to the heart of the matter: the Parks Department wanted to cut labor costs.

The money-saving partnership was dissolved, however, in January 1998, after Alison Hamman of Redmond, WA told reporters and state legislators that she had received "suggestive" greeting cards from Parker Stanphil, a serial rapist, after she called the hotline and asked to have Parks Department brochures mailed to her home.

Legislators hastily scheduled public hearings on the matter and demanded an investigation. One report of the incident states that Stanphil admitted to investigators that he had sent cards to another woman whose home address he had obtained at his prison telemarketing job. A search of Stanphil's cell revealed a stash of names and addresses of more than 200 women who had called the hotline.

Two similar CI toll-free hotlines -- for the state's Department of Ecology and the Board of Community and Technical Colleges -- also based at the CBCC prison, were terminated.

In addition to Stanphil's activities, the same report stated that Michael Massingale, a child rapist, on a number of occasions had attempted to engage women callers in inappropriate conversation. Other prisoner telemarketers had been caught running a drug-smuggling operation out of the CBCC phone room. They would send state agency information packets to colleagues outside the prison, who inserted drugs into the packets, marked them "undeliverable" and then returned them to the prison via the Postal Service.

In a circus of lies and hypocrisy, DOC officials and legislators alike purported to be shocked, absolutely shocked, that these type of activities flourished within a prison telemarketing operation. This official posturing was duly reported by a compliant media.

But one thing not mentioned by the corporate media was the fact that Stanphil is a notorious prison informant. While some observers may question the wisdom of employing somebody with a reputation as malodorous as Stanphil's in a prison telemarketing business, prison officials frequently dispense choice job assignments to reward their favorites.

As a result of the public outrage stemming from the media reports of the CBCC phone operation, legislation was quickly introduced that would have prevented prisoners from engaging in telemarketing. The DOC responded by announcing changes in its prison industries programs that exclude sex offenders from jobs with telephone access, and prevent prisoner telemarketers from having access to pens and paper at work. That and some swift lobbying by the DOC killed the bill. The DOC also offered up CBCC warden Robert Wright as a scapegoat. Wright, who had no direct control over the CI program, was summarily fired. David Wattnem, the CI site manager, was "reassigned" to other duties. And with that, the story ended; the media spotlight moved on.

Been There Before

While the Washington DOC- operated Correctional Industries is no longer involved in telemarketing -- for now anyway -- the same can't be said for a privately-owned telemarketing business that has operated out of another Washington prison since l987. The Washington Marketing Group (WMG) is a privately-owned boilerroom that employs prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, WA.

In the May 1995 issue of PLN , we reported how WMG helped elect "tough on crime" Republican Jack Metcalf to the U.S. Congess. Leading up to the November 1994 election, WMG prisoner telemarketers called voters in Metcalf's congressional district to conduct a phony "opinion poll" designed to inform voters that Metcalf supported the death penalty while his opponent did not.

None of the prisoners employed by WMG had any qualms about helping elect a politician that vowed to make life harder for them. (Metcalf, true to his word, has voted in favor of every piece of anti-prisoner legislation to come through the House, including the PLRA and AEDPA).

After PLN helped break the story, it made headlines throughout the state. (Metcalf denied knowing that WMG was a prison based boilerroom). The legislature briefly considred a bill making it illegal to use prisoners to campaign for politicians. WMG's response to the controversy was to require all of its prisoner employees to sign "non-disclosure" agreements, barring them from discussing any of the many clients who contract for UMG's services.

As far back as 1989, the Seattle Times splashed the WMG phone operation on its front page in an article titled: "Telemarketing: Can You Talk a Moment With a Killer"? That article detailed how unsuspecting consumers provided information about home security systems, credit card numbers, and more to WSR prisoner telemarketers. The Times reporter noted that he had received this information from none other than Ida Ballasiotes, who was then suing the DOC over the death of her daughter at the hands of a work release prisoners. Ballasiotes was later elected to the state legislature, and has chaired the Corrections Committee since 1994.

In 1996 PLN reported that 8 prisoner telemarketers at CBCC, working for the Dept. of Ecology's hotline were fired for calling friends and attempting to smuggle drugs into the prison.

With its periodic eruptions of controversy, Washington DOC officials and legislators, and the corporate media are hardly in a position to claim shock and surprise at the problems arising from prison telemarketing operations. Yet, for the past ten years, they have done just that relying on the short attention span and memory of the public to infuse each eruption with a fresh dose of shock and dismay.

Having engendered fear, hatred and hysteria against prisoners, the politicians, prisoncrats, and private businesses like WMG want to have it both ways: exploit prison labor at nominal wages, yet keep the fact that they use prison labor a deep secret from the public to avoid any kind of accountability.

Over and over, these incidents illustrate how issues like public safety, the public interest, and prisoners' need for decent job training and skills (as opposed to menial jobs like telemarketing), are sidelined by legislative posturing, greed for "labor cost savings", and prison officials concerned about smooth running prisons.

Future Prospects for

Prison Telemarketing

Despite the ongoing public relations liability inherent to prison telemarketing operations chiefly that a lot people loathe the idea of being called at home by prisoners who don't identify themselves as such prison telemarketing is a burgeoning business nationwide.

In Utah, prisoners employed by Utah Correctional Industries (UCI) man the phones for the Department of Commerce's Corporate Division, where they answer questions and mail out forms. They earn 60¢ to $1.85 an hour. UCI prisoners also process Medicaid claims for the Utah Department of Health.

Sandstar Productions is a privately-owned business that employs some 40 Utah prisoners to telemarket family videos. Sandstar prisoner phone sales reps receive the minimum wage (minus payroll taxes). But 43% of their pay is also deducted to pay for the cost of their captivity, and another 10% is taken out for a victim compensation fund.

In California, Transworld Airlines (TWA) continues to use prisoners at the Ventura Youth Facility to book airline reservations, despite several highly publicized incidents wherein prisoners used customer credit card information to commit fraud. The TWA operation was started in the mid '80s as part of TWA's effort to break a strike by flight attendants. Using prisoners to book reservations allowed TWA to shift its ticket agent work force to flight attendant duties. Thus, the use of prisoners as strike breakers will always be an attractive option. [See: "Making Prisons Pay", Christian Parenti, The Nation , 01/29/96.]

In Washington, WMG continues to pile up profits and bring in lucrative new accounts while employing 34 prisoners. It has recently landed contracts with SeaFirst Bank, Rainier Mortgaging, Jonas Funding and Prime Sources to use its prisoner telemarketers to entice homeowners to refinance their mortgages ("I'll just have to ask you a few simple questions first, maam."). These are all local financial institutions aware of the publicity prison telemarketing has received.

Without a trace of irony, the DOC alerted its employees and urged them not to divulge sensitive financial information over the telephone because more than likely there may be a prisoner on the other end of the line. But that leaves everyone else as a potential customer, or victim, depending on your outlook.

Prisons are inherently kneejerk, reactionary institutions where one isolated incident is used by prison officials to justify mass reprisals and elimination of programs beneficial to prisoners. That prison telemarketing not only goes forward but expands under a steady barrage of negative publicity and public outrage indicates that when profits are at stake (i.e. "labor cost" savings), platitudes like: "These are reasonable risks,' and "Overall, we have a good track record," are routinely trotted out by prisoncrats. `[`hose words are rarely uttered, however, in the aftermath of negative publicity surrounding prisoner furloughs, family visiting, work release, parole, and similar cases of public interaction with prisoners that have proven benefits for rehabilitation, but that don't pour "labor cost benefit" money into the coffers of government or private business owners.

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