Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

TCI Breaks 'Inmate Telephone System' Stranglehold

By now you've seen the Tele-Con, Inc. (TCI) ads in Prison Legal News . I first heard of TCI in June, 1997, when a PLN reader sent me one of their brochures. Collect calls from prisoners billed at 10¢ a minute? Yeah, right. This sounded WAY too good to be true. My skepticism radar went on full alert. But, what the heck, I had to check it out. So I wrote TCI a letter.

They sent me a lot of literature. One item was an article written by Tom Farley, editor and publisher of Private Line : A Journal of Inquiry into the Telephone System. I quote Farley here:

"This system from Tele-Con, Inc. lets inmates call from any prison in the country to anywhere in the United States for only 10 cents per minute and have these calls charged back to the party being called -- all without any sort of surcharge or additional long-distance costs."

Hey, it sounded legit. TCI's letter, brochure and promotional material looked first rate. But, still, there must be a catch. So I kept digging.

I exchanged several letters with TCI. They wanted to advertise in PLN (for obvious reasons). I wanted to find out what the catch was. How do they do it? Is it legal? Can they set up this service for prisoners in all 50 states? Could the DOC, BOP, or the big phone companies swat them down like a pesky gnat or pull the plug on them? Does it really work?

Gradually, my questions were answered. But the "how" is something that TCI isn't eager to discuss in detail. Their idea is "proprietary" and they don't want competitors to copy the same idea. This was a sticking point. I don't like being told "trust us... it works."

Fortunately, I have a close relative who has worked for AT&T and the Baby Bells for 25 years; she designs and maintains advanced telephone switching networks. So I gave her a call. Gave her the run down, and asked her if she knew what TCI was up to.

"Yeah," she assured me, "I know exactly what they're doing. Very creative. Ingenious. Is it legit? Yep. Is it legal? You bet. Can the big phone companies prevent them from doing it? I seriously doubt it. Can the prison administration shut them down or prevent prisoners from using the service? I don't see how."

My skepticism radar went down to "caution". It's one thing to trust the TCI company rep, but my contact at the phone company knows her stuff, and I'd trust her with my life. So, the only thing left was to try TCI's service for myself.

Well, to be technically correct, my wife tried out their service. You see, that's one of the reasons the prisoncrats can't touch 'em. They don't sell telephone service to prisoners they sell it to the people whom the prisoners call. The DOC can't prevent your people from purchasing telephone service from an independent provider.

Here's what I found out: (Obviously, your mileage may vary local and long distance telephone rates vary from place to place). It cost my wife about $40 in various charges to get the TCI service hooked up. TCI says this is high; most subscribers should expect about $20 for initial hook-up fees (and as low as $8 in some areas). What was the hook-up fee for? My wife, who lives in Seattle (area code 206), is leasing a telephone line that is local to the Monroe, WA, prison I am in (area code 360). She was assigned a local (to Monroe, WA) telephone number. And, get this, when I call that local number... her phone rings in Seattle. But as far as the prison's "Inmate Telephone System" is concerned, I'm simply placing a local call.

Her regular Seattle number still works, too. So now I have a choice. I can call her on the 10¢ a minute TCI (local) number, or her normal U.S. West number.

In addition to the hook-up charges, my wife pays $16.25 a month to lease the additional "local" phone line. Again, TCI says this is high. The average is $12 a month, and it's as low as $4 in some areas. So, yes, the calls are 10¢ a minute, but what does it work out to with the additional charges? The answer is simple: It depends on how often you call the number, and how long you talk.

I had my wife send me photocopies of her phone bills. I averaged out the cost of our regular (U.S. West) calls. They ran anywhere from 13¢ to 38¢ a minute, depending on the time of day and length of call. The overall average was 16¢ a minute. So, how does that compare with TCI? If I call her four times a month and talk for 40 minutes each time (and you add the $16.25 monthly line fee) then our TCI calls cost her about 20¢ a minute. Huh? Is this such a great deal? Obviously not!

However, if I call her twelve times a month for an average of 40 minutes a call (and you add the monthly line fee) then the calls costs her about 13¢ a minute. In this second example, if the monthly line fee was $4 a month (and TCI says that with economy of scale, they'll get it down that low) then our calls would average 10.8¢ a minute. Now we're talking!

The bottom line? TCI's telephone service isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread for every person who accepts calls from prisoners. But for people who normally pay for a high volume of calls, you can't beat the savings. For instance, a law firm or legal aid clinic that takes calls from numerous prisoners in the same prison (or several prisons in the same local billing area) can hook up a TCI line and channel all of their client calls through that number. The savings in that case would substantial.

As far as I'm concerned, though, the best thing about TCI is that they are finally breaking the stranglehold that AT&T, Sprint, MCI and their DOC/BOP crime partners have had on "Inmate Telephone Systems".

Like I said, your mileage may vary. TCI currently offers service for people who take calls from most BOP prisons and is in the process of setting up service in most states for calls placed from state prisons. So, if you're in prison and your only calls are to, say, grandma once a month, TCI isn't for you. But if you make a lot of phone calls, and your people are tired of being gouged by the inflated "Inmate Telephone System" rates, I strongly urge you to have them call or write TCI at: 1-800-320-5454 -- TCI; 111 South Moody Avenue; Tampa, FL 33609. Tell 'em you read about it in PLN .

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login