Until recently, most Connecticut Department of Correction (CDOC) prisoners were forced to make phone calls using an MCI (Verizon Business) collect calling system at rates much higher than those charged to the general public.
Under MCI's contract, 45% of the company's profits are kicked back to the state as "commission" payments, which have totaled $32.7 million since 2001. Although that equates to unethical price gouging of prisoners' families and friends, while simultaneously disadvantaging prisoners who need to maintain crucial outside support pending their release, it's the standard arrangement for most prison and jail systems.
Dianne Johnson, a working grandmother, has been trying to stay in touch with her son at a CDOC facility during his 20-year burglary term. Paying up to $17 per 15-minute call, she estimates the phone charges will add up to a multi-thousand dollar burden.
Worse yet, the Hartford Courant has reported that little or none of the MCI phone kickback money is being funneled into programs to benefit prisoners, such as re-entry or training projects. The state acknowledged that most of the revenue was spent on "state telecommunications, including computer tracking systems for law enforcement."
State Senator Andrew McDonald (D-Stamford) wasn't happy with that revelation. "This is a state-sponsored scam. It's an outrageous intrusion on the rights of families with people in prison," he said. "And that's who bears this cost--the families."
According to an April 28, 2007 Courant article, 93% of the $4.5 million in phone revenues paid to the state in 2006 was spent on non-prison related e-mail, websites for municipalities, tracking systems, information technology staffing costs, and telecommunication and computer projects. A scant $350,000 went to CDOC prisoner education and re-entry programs.
When the CDOC's phone program was instituted in 1997, the revenues were earmarked for the state Department of Information Technology. Governor M. Jody Rell sidestepped questions on the issue, responding that while keeping prisoners in touch with their loved ones was important, phone security features "must be in place." Of course the $32.7 million in state-aided price gouging over the past 6 years is far more than the cost of phone security features. And even that argument is irrelevant, as the state's kickback is above and beyond the cost of the phone services provided, security measures included.
Connecticut had an opportunity to end the pain of excessive prison phone rates in 2006 when its three-year contract with MCI expired, but exercised a one-year extension option because state staff were "too busy to seek other bidders." The extension expired in July 2007 and the state invoked a second contract extension that ends in July 2008, when it will be rebid. Meanwhile, Global Tel*Link acquired MCI's prison phone service business effective July 17, 2007, and took over the contract with the CDOC.
Other states have taken steps to reduce exorbitant prison phone rates. Nebraska ended commission-based prison phone contracts years ago. In 2006, Missouri changed its prison phone service to PCS, reduced rates and added debit calling; the state now has one of the lowest prison phone rates in the nation. And in January 2007, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that he would waive prison phone kickbacks and renegotiate the state's contract with MCI. This is projected to cut the cost of calls from New York DOC facilities in half until a new phone contract is implemented on April 1, 2008, which will be based on the lowest comparable community rates.
Beginning in 2004, the CDOC established a pre-paid calling system at its Brooklyn and Enfield prisons, which costs families 75% of the collect call phone rate when they deposit funds in a debit account. The pre-paid system, called AdvancePay, was expanded to all other CDOC facilities by October 2007, but still costs more than non-prison calls and the state still receives kickbacks.
One should not overlook the fact that both the CDOC and the phone service company profit when prisoners fail to successfully reintegrate into society following their release and return to prison. It is thus not surprising that the CDOC continues to distance prisoners from their social support networks by financially strangling their families with kickback-inflated phone rates that remain excessive.
Sources: The Courant, www.cga.ct.gov, www.globaltellink.com
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