In 2007, when Texas became the last state in the nation to let prisoners make phone calls on a regular basis, the limit on phone usage was 120 minutes a month. [See: PLN, Nov. 2007, p.11]. Two years later the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) responded to requests by prisoners’ families and doubled the monthly phone minute allotment to 240. In 2011 the Texas legislature considered, but ultimately did not adopt, an amendment that would have increased the number of minutes to 480; regardless, the limit on phone usage was upped anyway.
Not surprisingly, Texas officials have not increased the number of phone minutes solely for the benefit of prisoners and their families, for whom phone calls are a primary means of communication. Rather, the reason for allowing additional phone minutes is strictly financial. The legislature needs to plug a large budget deficit and money from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) phone system is an attractive source.
Currently, phone calls from Texas state prisoners cost $.234/minute for debit in-state phone calls ($.26/minute for collect or prepaid) and $.387/minute for debit out-of-state calls ($.43/minute for collect or prepaid). While those rates are significantly less than those charged in other state prison systems, they are still higher than rates paid by the general public.
Of course the state gets a hefty kickback from the TDCJ phone contract – 40% of the gross revenue, with some of that money earmarked for the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. Thus, the more calls that prisoners make, the greater the amount of revenue and the greater the kickback to the state. This led Rep. Jerry Madden to introduce an amendment to Senate Bill 1 (2011) that would have increased the number of allotted phone minutes to 480 per month, by amending Texas Government Code § 495.027(d).
“This is an easy way to raise money for the state,” said Madden.
Complicating the revenue-generating rationale behind increasing the number of allotted phone minutes is the fact that many prisoners do not even use 240 minutes per month.
This is likely due to restrictions placed on the TDCJ phone system – for example, prisoners can only call up to ten people included on their visitation list, who must go through a bureaucratic registration process. Additionally, phone calls to cell phones are not allowed; thus, people without landlines are unable to receive calls from prisoners.
Still, providing prisoners with more phone minutes, regardless of the motivation of state officials, is beneficial and conducive to increased communication between prisoners and their families and friends. Unfortunately, Rep. Madden’s amendment to increase the number of phone minutes to 480 was excluded from the final enrolled version of Senate Bill 1. The bill did include a provision to charge Texas prisoners a $100 annual fee for medical care, replacing the prior co-pay system; that change went into effect in September 2011. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.24].
Despite the demise of Rep. Madden’s amendment, the TDCJ decided in mid-May 2011 to modify the phone system to let prisoners make up to 500 minutes of phone calls each month. Calls are still limited to 15 minutes each, and the other restrictions described above still apply.
If the restrictions were changed to decouple TDCJ prisoners’ phone number lists from their visitation lists, and to allow calls to cell phones, revenue from the prison phone system would likely skyrocket despite the costly per-minute rates.
Sources: Texas Tribune, www.prisontalk.com, http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com, www.tdcj.state.tx.us, www.texasprisonphone.com
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