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Prison-based Call Centers Open in Austria, India

by Matt Clarke

In an attempt to bridge a budget shortfall, the Austrian Justice Ministry has set up call centers in prisons and con-tracted them out to private companies that might otherwise outsource the work overseas. The move has prompted criticism about prisoners handling private customer information.

Austrian prison officials say they have call centers at seven facilities, including the Karlau prison near Graz. The com-panies contracting to use the centers are primarily German telecommunications service providers. Christian Sikora, a rep-resentative for employees at Karlau, said “We have filed a protest with the ministry, on moral, legal and ethical grounds. But our complaint was rejected because of the ‘enormous’ economic advantage” to using cheap prison labor.

Sikora claimed that prisoners are told to use fake names and falsely say they are employed by companies like Tele-kom Austria or Deutsche Telekom to get personal information that is used for marketing. Telekom Austria has filed legal action against one prison call center contractor. Sikora also said the contractors preferred to hire prisoners convicted of fraud, because they are “experienced sales geniuses.”

The Karlau program employs 26 prisoners who generate 40,000 Euros ($57,300) a year for the prison. Other call cen-ters at facilities in Jakomini and Sonnberg report similar success. Austrian prison officials promote the centers as a way to train prisoners in legitimate jobs other than traditional vocational training in careers like locksmithing and joinery.

However, Sikora said that such potential benefits do not justify giving convicted criminals access to citizens’ personal information and hiring them to do work similar to the fraudulent offenses “they have been locked up for in the first place.”

Approximately 4,000 miles across the globe, a call center is being set up at the Cherlapally Central Jail in Hyderabad, India. Radiant Infosystems, a private company, plans to run the jail-based center in three shifts; initially 250 prisoners will be employed to process bank account applications and insurance forms. The prisoners can earn up to 120 rupees a day (approximately $2.61). The company stated in a press release that the call center would “boost the morale of criminals and ... improve their workplace skills,” plus “enhance further their career prospects.”

Of course U.S. prisoners have worked in call centers for many years. PLN has previously reported that AT&T, former airline TWA and a Washington lawmaker have used prisoner labor for call center and telemarketing work. [See: PLN, April 1993, p.8; May 1995, p.23; August 1998, p.16]. Prison telemarketing programs in Washington state and Utah were shut down after problems developed, including prisoners’ misuse of customers’ personal information. [See: PLN, Dec. 2001, p.1; August 2000, p.11].

Currently, around 1,100 federal prisoners – most of them women – are employed by Federal Prison Industries (more commonly known as UNICOR) to handle outbound business-to-business calls, answer calls at help desks and provide directory assistance.

According to UNICOR spokesperson Julie Rozier, prisoners who work at the centers do not let callers know they are incarcerated and do not have access to sensitive customer information. UNICOR’s contracts include non-disclosure provi-sions, so the names of businesses that use prison-based call centers are kept secret – though UNICOR boasts it has per-formed work for “some of the top companies in America.”

UNICOR refers to its services business group, which includes the call centers, as “the best kept secret in outsourc-ing.” After all, why exploit prisoner labor overseas when it can be done at home in the U.S.?


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