The California Department of Corrections (CDC) awarded a sole-source contract to MCI WorldCom (MCI) for all CDC prisoner phones. The October 29, 2004 agreement covers four years, with options for up to two one-year extensions. Significantly, CDC entered into the contract with no input from its prisoner users or their families even those few remaining phone call recipients who have accounts with MCI. Prior contracts with MCI and Verizon expired in February, 2005.
The new contract provides that in-state long distance rates will be reduced by 20% (from what has been $.93 per minute), but out-of-state rates will remain unchanged. Future rate reductions are provided for when call volumes increase (reviewed annually). MCI will also provide newer technology equipment that includes Personal Identification Number capability, which CDC might use in the future. MCI will upgrade equipment at its current sites.
According to Lorretta Fine, CDC's Telecommunications Branch (TB) Chief, the new contract is designed to aid CDC investigative staff. Statewide reports on telephone use can be generated. Auto-archiving will be done on MCI computers. Call detail records and voice recordings will be accessible for the life of the contract. MCI will provide computer workstations for investigative staff, tied to the phone network. Voice recordings will be compatible with any computer having a sound card. And MCI will give access to its databases to CDC investigative staff.
Prisoners, in turn, will gain volume control buttons on all phones. As for the prisoners' families who pay the bill, MCI will provide an Internet website regarding services, a toll-free number to inquire about billing, and the option of pre-paid or direct bill accounts with MCI. The TB will issue a memo to Wardens at prisons where Verizon is being purged, to permit prisoners and families/friends to allow time to prepare for the transition and potential impacts.
That's the good news. Reality is not so pretty, however. PLN previously reported on criminally bankrupt MCI's non-competitive 43% kick-back contract with CDC, as well as MCI's sordid national track record (see: PLN, Oct. 2003, p.12, Scandal Ridden, Bankrupt MCI WorldCom Wins" No-Bid California Prisoner Phone Contract) wherein MCI, fresh from exposure of its world-record $11 billion accounting fraud, won kick-back bidding wars (up to 60% in New York) and forced small business competitors out of business. Some of their officials faced criminal charges in Oklahoma.
It is not known what pay-to-play fee MCI promised CDC, nor who the competitors were (if any), nor on what basis the contract was awarded. State Senator John Vasconcellos called MCI's earlier 2002 no-bid award grossly immoral," a public image CDC apparently still accepts today.
But what is known is MCI's current CDC performance. Since announcing billing changes" in November, 2003, MCI has stopped inter-company billing for calls placed to non-MCI customers' phones. If a prisoners' family deals with other established phone companies, or has switched to new Voice Over Internet Protocol or cell phones prisoners can forget calling them. At one CDC prison, prisoners reported losing contact with over 80% of their contacts when stopped by a lame recorded message, Billing dispute with. MCI" [read: switch to MCI from your present vendor or lose your loved ones' calls].
But if the call recipient tries to fix the problem, the story only gets worse. One determined contact reported it took 11 hours of on-phone time, over a 30 day period, to get MCI to permit them to receive up to six calls per month from one prisoner. Others less stalwart have given up even trying to get MCI to work with them. There is hope, however. If MCI continues to cut off prisoners from their loved ones, the losses incurred may hasten finality of their bankruptcy and permit a competitive new phone source for CDC that will charge fair rates and treat its customers and CDC prisoners with dignity.
Source: CDC TB Bulletin No. 04-01, New Statewide Inmate/Ward Telephone Contract, 11/16/04.
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