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Texas Awards Prison Phone Contract

On August 14, 2008, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) awarded a phone service contract to two companies, Kansas-based Embarq Corp. and Dallas-based Securus Technologies, Inc. Prior to this historic event, the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was the only state prison system in the nation that did not let prisoners make phone calls. The contract was awarded during a TBCJ meeting held at a motel in Austin; prior to the contract award, details of the bids were confidential.

It is now known that Global Tel*Link and Unisys also submitted proposals, with Global Tel offering the lowest bid. But the TBCJ didn’t accept the lowest bid; after all, it will be prisoners and their families paying for the phone calls, not the state. Instead, the TDCJ accepted the higher Embarq/Securus partnership bid with rates of 26¢/minute for in-state and 43¢/minute for out-of-state collect calls, and 23¢/minute for in-state and 39¢/minute for out-of-state prepaid calls. The contract will result in the installation of approximately 5,000 phones at 113 prison sites by April 2009, which will be used by about 160,000 Texas prisoners.

To be eligible to make phone calls, prisoners must have no major disciplinary violations within the past 90 days and be working, in school or in a treatment program. Phone calls will be restricted to a prisoner’s lawyer, people on the prisoner’s visitation list who agree to receive calls, and free calls to Crime Stoppers. The calls will be limited to a maximum of 15 minutes each and 120 minutes total per month. The identity of the callers will be verified by voice confirmation and a personal identification number.

The seven-year TDCJ prison phone contract is predicted to generate up to $85 million in annual revenue, of which 40% will be kicked back to the state in the form of “commission” payments. At the end of the contract, Texas will keep an estimated $28 million worth of installed telecommunications equipment. The first $10 million in profits paid to the state and half of all subsequent state profits will go to “victims’ rights” groups as a blatant bribe to quell their long-standing opposition to phones in Texas prisons.

The idea of allowing prisoners to make phone calls was so politically toxic that candidates for governor in the 1990s swore it would never happen, while prison staff predicted a crime wave should it ever occur. TDCJ officials now say that technological advances permit the safe use of prison phones by making it possible to positively identify the prisoner making the call and to digitally record and review the conversations. In fact, they anticipate a crime-fighting intelligence bonanza from the calls.

Pressure to install prison phones also came from the proliferation of illegal cell phones among Texas prisoners. According to the prison system’s Inspector General, in the 18 months preceding the Embarq/Securus contract, 600 illegal cell phones were confiscated in TDCJ facilities. Prisoners in Texas have received sentences of up to 30 years for possessing contraband cell phones – which is a very harsh wake-up call.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Business Journal,

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