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Telemarketing and Computer Programs Crash at Utah Prison
These lines were part of a letter written in February 2000 by Utah prisoner David Hunsaker, a convicted forger, to a 15-yearold girl he'd never met. Hunsaker obtained the Utah teen's name and address from another prisoner who had talked with her while both prisoners worked as telemarketers for Utah Correctional Industries, the lucrative arm of the Utah prison system. The girl's mother intercepted Hunsaker's letter and sent it to Utah Attorney General Jan Graham.
On April 13, 2000, while Graham was investigating, Utah prisoner Michael Moore, 43, was found dead in his cell, an apparent suicide. Moore, a software designer who had earned two college degrees while in prison, was under investigation for his part in an alleged UCI computer security breach at Utah's Point of the Mountain State Prison at Draper. The UCI computer security breach was apparently unrelated to the UCI telemarketing probe.
UCI is a profitable operation with annual revenue of $12 million. UCI's success has funded additional prison staff positions and paid for technologically advanced offices and capital improvements that otherwise would have been impossible given the slow growth of the Utah state budget.
Using the classic buylowsellhigh business model, UCI buys prisoners' labor on the cheap, then sells that labor to clients at a handsome profit. The Utah prison, like prisons across the country, is turning itself into a forprofit factory, cashing in on a tight labor market and public disenchantment with rehabilitation programs. UCI functions, in essence, as a convict version of Kelly Girls, leasing prisoners to companies in need of labor. Although the state must charge the employers market wages for prisoners' labor, the employers offer no retirement, vacation, or health benefits; nor do they pay for Social Security, workers' compensation, or Medicare. Using prison labor can cut an employer's payroll costs by 35 percent.
About 850, or 18 percent, of Utah's prisoners work for UCI according to the prison system's annual report. The figure for prisoners similarly employed nationwide is about 6 percent.
Utah prisoners work under contract to private enterprises and state agencies where they perform tasks ranging from well paying, technically complex jobs to telemarketing to clothing manufacture. Prisoners who are employed by UCI perform a variety of tasks for state agencies including data entry for the State Tax Commission, the Department of Health, and the Utah Arts Council. Other prisoners copy historical files and blueprints onto microfilm. Still other prisoners are assigned to work as computer repair specialists.
In Utah, as in most other states, the prison system acts as a labor contractor, billing the employer for the labor performed by prisoners. The state receives the revenue and disburses a portion to the prisoners.
It is a violation of federal law for state prisons to sell their products in interstate commerce unless they are certified by a federal program known as Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE). Under the provisions of the PIE program, which was created in 1979, prisoners must be paid the same wages as free workers engaged in similar work. They must also be allowed to keep at least 20 percent of what the employers pay for their services. Up to 80 percent of their wages can be withheld for income taxes, childsupport obligations, roomandboard charges, and victimassistance funds.
UCI did not disclose a specific formula for distributing prisoners' compensation, except that each prisoner is allowed to keep at least 20 percent of the amount the employer pays UCI for his labor.
Letterwriter Hunsaker worked as a telemarketer for UCI client SandStar Family Films, a nosex, noviolence, Utahbased motion picture distribution company. In February 2000, a 15-yearold Utah girl was home when another UCI telemarketer, working from a list of random names and telephone numbers, drew out the girl's address after delivering SandStar's promotional pitch. That prisoner, whom prison officials decline to identify, allegedly bartered the girl's information to Hunsaker while the two sat among a bank of telephones at the Point of the Mountain prison. Using that information, Hunsaker wrote to the girl.
After receiving Hunsaker's letter, the girl's mother said her daughter "worried about it for days wondering where she could go hide when Mr. Hunsaker gets out. ... Our concern is how can we protect or prevent letters like this going to innocent young children?"
Jesse Gallegos, spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC), noted that Hunsaker apparently did nothing illegal. Nevertheless, Gallegos said, prison officials screened Hunsaker's outgoing mail until he left prison in July 2000.
In a similar event, April Jordan of Texas complained that an unidentified Utah prisoner telephoned her home in February 2000. The prisoner claimed he was working as a telemarketer for a private company.
"When he called, he got through to my daughter," said Jordan. "He asked her age twice and then gave the information to other inmates." Jordan noted that the prisoner-telemarketer, whose name was never disclosed, asked her daughter for personal information that didn't seem appropriate for a telemarketing call, but she did not elaborate.
The Hunsaker and Jordan incidents occurred despite protections against such intrusion including the taping of prisoner calls, conversation monitoring, and prohibitions against prisoners writing down what they hear at their workstations.
Ms. Jordan registered formal complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Attorneys General of Texas and Utah. "The nature of the telemarketing plan permits criminals to obtain and use personal data on individuals, including children, without any idea they are giving private information to criminals," Jordan told the FTC. "Anyone who is called by a prisoner should be told that fact very clearly at the beginning of the first call and in every later contact," she said.
The UCI telemarketing system was designed to allow prisoners only a brief conversation with randomly selected residents. The calls were placed by a computer and the prisoners did not see the telephone number being called. When a resident wanted to arrange further contact, the call was transferred to a company employee who was not a prisoner.
These incidents and others compelled the Utah DOC and UCI to reexamine the practice of assigning prisoners to jobs where they might obtain personal facts about private citizens.
In many respects, the telemarketing investigation parallels another prison probe launched when Michael Moore, the UCI prisoner-programmer, purportedly killed himself before he could be interviewed in connection with his suspected role as mastermind of a computer security breach at the Draper prison.
During a routine computer security audit early in 2000, classified files were found on the hard drive of an unnamed prisoner's workstation. Called "0Trac" (for offender tracking), the files were part of a database that stores names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and a criminal history of all probationers and parolees in Utah.
The exhaustive forensic sweep of all prison computers which followed focused on the facilities operated by UCI. Five days after the investigation began, Moore was found hanging by a sheet in his cellblock, seemingly a suicide.
Efforts to revive Moore failed. No suicide note was found. Moore's apparent suicide was particularly puzzling since, through his diligent and valued work for UCI, he had earned an early release date.
Prior to the discovery of the purloined files, Moore had worked as a UCI programmer and had been housed with low risk, general population prisoners. Following the discovery, he was moved to a maximum security housing unit reserved for unruly prisoners and those who are under investigation for unspecified infractions. The suicide reportedly occurred in this maximum security housing unit.
Moore had been in prison since 1982 for the murders of two men at a Utah restaurant. He had earned a March 9, 2004, parole date. A lawsuit filed in 1992 on behalf of Moore complained of difficulty receiving PLN . The suit ended with a $20,200 settlement.
Computer experts from the Utah Department of Public Safety were called in to extract evidence of computer crimes or security breaches at Moore's computer workstation as well as workstations used by other prisoners. The experts' findings were not made public.
In June 2000, H.L. Haun, Executive Director of Utah DOC, announced that Utah prisoners would stop working as telemarketers within 90 days. Haun conceded that prison and UCI officials could not ensure that prisoners would not misuse the personal information on consumers that they obtained.
Haun acknowledged that while UCI jobs may help prisoners rejoin society, these noble goals must take a back seat to public safety. "We believe that no one's safety was compromised in these matters but we cannot tolerate situations where the community feels at risk due to this kind of inappropriate conduct," Haun said.
UCI Director Dick Clasby commented that "some 130 prisoners will lose their jobs when the telemarketing operation is terminated and the prison will lose up to $700,000 in revenue."
The shutdown of the UCI telemarketing program is a close parallel to a similar shutdown of a Washington state prison telemarketing operation. That story was reported in the August 2000 issue of PLN .
The highly profitable UCI telemarketing program thus came to an end on August 31, 2000. Meanwhile, the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office continued its investigation of Moore's death. Further details have not been made public.
Sources: The Salt Lake Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press reports.
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