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Texas Prison Phones and Emails Generate Less Revenue Than Expected

When the Texas legislature passed SB 1580 in 2007, requiring the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to install phones in state prisons, Texas was the only state that did not allow prisoners to make regular phone calls. Even so, the bill faced opposition and only passed because lawmakers expected the calls would generate a lot of revenue. Also, victims’ rights organizations that would otherwise oppose prisoners having phone access were bought off with a promise that they would receive the first $10 million in profits from the new prison phone system.

At the time, the House Research Organization estimated annual profits of between $25 million and $30 million. A more realistic estimate published in the bill’s fiscal note conservatively estimated $7.5 million a year in net income.

The first phones were installed in March 2009, and nine months later the phone installations were complete system-wide. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.27]. Since then, TDCJ prisoners have placed over 4.7 million phone calls and received about 1.8 million emails.
However, the profits were lower than expected. During the first twenty-one months of TDCJ phone operations, Embarq, the company that operates the system, collected $15 million for emails and phone calls. Embarq kept around 60% of that income while the remaining $6 million was paid into the state’s Crime Victims’ Fund.

Why did the revenue from TDCJ phone calls and emails fall so short of expectations? The answer is a combination of factors that make the phone system difficult and costly for prisoners to use.

By contrast, the email system seems to be effective and efficient. However, prisoners have no way to send emails, so it is a case of one-way communication. Anyone can send an email to a TDCJ prisoner for a charge of $.44 per page. The emails are printed and generally delivered along with the regular mail the same day they are sent, if sent before noon. Otherwise they are usually delivered with the regular mail the next business day.

Prisoner phone usage suffers from a number of constraints. First it’s expensive, costing $.23 per minute for in-state debit calls and $.39 per minute for out-of-state debit calls. Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes and prisoners are restricted to 240 minutes of phone time per month. Thus, a 15-minute in-state call costs $3.45 while an out-of-state call costs $5.85 – fairly large sums for prisoners who do not receive wages for their labor. Calls can be made collect at slightly higher rates of $.26 per minute in-state and $.43 per minute out-of-state, but that imposes a financial burden on prisoners’ families.

Half of TDCJ prisoners have less than $5.00 in their prison trust accounts. Thus, they are often unable to make calls on their own dime. If their families aren’t able or willing to put money in their trust accounts for phone calls, then those families are unlikely to be able or willing to accept collect calls at the higher rates. Lowering the phone rates would increase phone usage, and possibly overall revenue.

The TDCJ also excludes some prisoners from making phone calls. Prisoners who have recent major disciplinary cases, are segregated due to gang affiliation or disciplinary problems, or are in transit may not use the phones. However, this is only a small portion of the prison population.

Restrictions on who prisoners can call have a much greater effect. The TDCJ allows prisoners to place calls only to the ten people on their visitation list. To receive a call, the recipient must have a land line; calls to cell phones are not allowed. These restrictions create numerous problems. First, many people no longer have a land line as it is a needless duplication when a person has a cell phone. Second, the ten people on a prisoner’s visitation list may represent only two or three phone numbers – because family members tend to live at the same address and use the same land line.

Further, family and friends who live too far away to visit won’t be on a prisoner’s visitation list and thus cannot be called. Yet adding them to the prisoner’s visitation list so they can accept phone calls may require removing a relative or friend from the list who actually visits, thereby preventing future visits. If the TDCJ wants to increase phone usage, it could allow calls to cell phones and make prisoners’ phone lists distinct from their visitation lists.

The TDCJ says it uses visitation lists because the people on those lists have already been screened for security purposes, and the department flatly opposes allowing calls to cell phones.

“By their nature, [cell phones are] mobile and they pose a unique security challenge for us,” said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark. “We had to have a strong policy in place so we could make sure offenders were not going to misuse the system,” referring to concerns that prisoners might use the prison phones for criminal activities. However, the TDCJ phone system is electronically monitored and recorded, making such abuses unlikely.

Another issue plaguing the prison phone system is low quality service. Phone calls are often cut off with a message stating that third-party calls are not allowed, even when the person accepting the call doesn’t have third-party features or other enhanced phone features. Calls are frequently “clipped,” with the caller and/or recipient sounding like they are talking through a fan. Sometimes the effect is so pronounced as to make phone conversations unintelligible. It is unknown how many prisoners have been discouraged from making calls due to poor quality, but that is a problem that needs to be examined and remedied.

It was hoped that installing phones at TDCJ facilities would reduce the number of cell phones being smuggled into state prisons. And indeed, the number of cell phones confiscated from prisoners dropped from around 1,480 in 2009 to 1,193 in 2010.
However, the TDCJ attributes this decline to better security precautions rather than lack of demand. Regardless of the reason for the drop in contraband cell phones, the TDCJ could easily decrease demand for cell phones, generate more revenue and help prisoners stay in contact with their families simply by tweaking its phone policies.

“They’re just going to need to re-examine, particularly in these tough budget times,” said state Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who authored SB 1580. “I think there’s more effective ways for us to maximize the program.”

Which means maximizing the revenue generated by prisoners’ phone calls that goes to the state, of course. Pending legislation, HB 3386, would allow TDCJ prisoners to make 480 minutes of phone calls per month, doubling the current limit. It is anticipated that this will increase the amount of income from the prison phone system.

Apparently lost in the discussion over maximizing prison phone revenue is the fact that maintaining close contact between prisoners and their families, such as through regular phone calls, can have a rehabilitative effect.

“Having good, positive, close relationships with people on the outside is a really important key to re-entry,” noted Ana Yañez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

But state lawmakers and TDCJ officials are apparently less concerned with rehabilitation and re-entry than they are with finding ways to make more money off prisoners and their families.

Sources: Texas Tribune, PLN research

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