by Matt Clarke
On May 15, 2007, legislation took effect that brought Texas into the fold of the other 49 states that have prisoner telephones in state prisons.
State Senator Letica Van de Putte filed SD 1580, authorizing the phones, which took effect Nay 15, 2007. State Representatives Terri Hodge (D-Dallas) and Pat Haggerty (R-El Paso) filed companion bills in the House. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 142-1 in the House.
Governor Rick Perry, a strong opponent of prison phones, refused to sign the bill, but also did not veto it. Instead, he issued a statement of his concerns regarding the bill and directed the Texas Board of Criminal Justice "to develop stringent Guidelines that assure that pedophiles, predatory sex offenders, murderers, rapists, and other violent offenders - who have forfeited all rights to such privilege by the nature of their offenses - are not granted the phone privilege." How this is implemented remains to be seen.
Why did it take so long for Texas to catch up with the rest of the country? Official paranoia and the influence of "tough on crime" victims rights groups. The official paranoia was somewhat assuaged by the advent of new technology capable of positively identifying the prisoner making the call, blocking call forwarding and blocking third-party conference calls. Perry credited the "new" technology, which has been around for some 15 years, for his slightly softened position.
The bill requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to contract the installation of approximately one phone for every 30 prisoners with the phones to be in place by September 2008. As the second largest prison system in the country with over 154,000 prisoners, this means installing up to 5,100 phones.
TDCJ will get a hefty kickback from the phone contractor-40% of the gross revenues. The first $10 million of TDCJ's commission is earmarked for the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, a bribe that got victims rights groups-- who have been vehemently opposed to prison phones for decades--to go with the flow.
For many years the telephone industry had unsuccessfully lobbied Texas law makers and prison officials to allow them to install phones in Texas prisons, promising tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks to the state. Until now, cruelty had triumphed over greed.
Currently, TDCJ allows a maximum of one collect phone call per prisoner every three months. The call is only allowed if the prisoner has a clean disciplinary record and if there are guards available to sit with the prisoner and listen in to the conversation on an extension phone.
Prisoners in state jails are allowed a phone call every 30 days under similar conditions. The new phone system will include computerized monitoring of prisoner phone calls, freeing up guards for other duties.
Prison officials also believe the availability of phones may reduce the smuggling of cell phones into the prisons.
The bill requires biometric identification of the prisoner making the call, a restricted list of phone numbers the prisoner is allowed to call, that local calls not exceed the rate charged for local calls at county jails, that a method of call pre-paying be available, and that attorney-client calls not be monitored. It is undecided whether collect calls will be an option.
Sources: S.B. 1580, May 15, 2007 Statement of Governor Rick Perry, www.pegasusnevs.com. Associated Press, Austin-American Statesman
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