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Texas Legislature Authorizes Doubling of Prisoners' Monthly Phone Minutes

In 2007, when Texas became the last state in the union to allow prisoner phone calls, the limit on phone usage was 120 minutes a month. In 2009, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) responded to requests by prisoners' families and doubled the monthly phone minute allotment to 240. Now, the Texas Legislature has passed a bill authorizing another doubling to 480 minutes a month.

No, the legislature has not gotten soft on prisoners. The reason for re-doubling the monthly phone minutes are purely cynical. The legislature is faced with a budget deficit and would like to plug the hole in the budget with money made by charging high phone rates to prisoners and their families. They currently pay 23¢ per minute for in-state phone calls and 43¢ per minute to call out of state.

Of course, the state gets a hefty kickback as well. So hefty that raising the limit to 240 minutes was projected to generate $7.5 million for the state to put into the Compensation to Victims of Crime fund. Instead, only $5 million was generated. This led Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, to introduce the bill authorizing another doubling of the phone minutes in hopes of raising the rest of the $7.5 million.

"This is an easy way to raise money for the state," said Madden.

Of course, it is easy for Madden. It might not be so easy for prisoners and their families, who tend to be among the poorer residents of the state.

Complicating any projection of additional funding through the re-doubling is the fact that few prisoners reach the current 240-minute cap. Perhaps that is why the TBCJ has not yet acted to actually re-double the phone minutes.

There is also a question about the true purpose of the legislation. The TBCJ did not need legislative authorization to double the phone minutes. Why would it need such authorization to re-double them? Perhaps the bill is merely intended to encourage them by providing political coverage for the re-doubling or a way to calculate additional, possibly fictional, revenue into the budget.

The real reason Texas Prison phones aren't making as much money as projected has nothing to do with the number of minutes and everything to do with the restrictions placed on who may be called. Prisoners may only call the phone numbers of the ten people appearing on the prisoners' visitors list and those people must go through an often arduous registration process. Since several family members or friends may live at the same address, it is rare for a prisoner to have more than a few numbers available for calling. Additionally, phone calls to cell phones are not allowed. The large number of people who do not have landlines are disqualified from receiving prisoner phone calls. If restrictions were changed to decouple the approved phone number list from the visitation list and allow phone calls to cell phones, revenues on Texas prison phones would doubtlessly skyrocket despite the high per-minute prices. Source: Texas Tribune

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