Local TV reporters often overcome slow news days by spreading paranoia at someone else's expense, before telling viewers to stop being so paranoid.
Reporter Dave McKinley of Buffalo, N.Y.'s WGRZ-TV followed that familiar script in October 2012 when he broke the news that prisoners of New York's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) have been taking phone calls for the state's Department of Motor Vehicles since 1988, a story that appears to have been news to McKinley exclusively.
McKinley framed his report as a "2 On Your Side" investigation spurred by a tip from a viewer who was "concerned" about state prisoners working public jobs. McKinley did some digging and found that DOCCS operates two DMV call centers at the Greene Correctional Facility for men and the Bedford Hills prison for women, employing 85 prisoners who take about 1 million calls annually.
Perplexed by WGRZ's sudden interest in a prison job that's been around for 25 years, DOCCS spokesman Peter Cutler told McKinley he was unaware of any incident "that would cause any concern for DMV customers."
Prisoners who work in the call centers, Cutler explained, endure 500 hours of training to answer general assistance questions, and earn slave wages of 46 cents to $1.14 per hour, the only worthwhile thread of McKinley's story, which he neglected to pursue.
Cutler assured McKinley, and the viewers he intended to rouse, that prisoners convicted of credit card or computer fraud, or telephone-related crimes, are not eligible to work in the call centers. He also said that prisoners would never ask for sensitive information, like a customer's address, or they would be fired.
McKinley, confirming the triteness of his story, reported that unions representing state workers have been arguing for a quarter-century against prison call centers, claiming they take away jobs from "free and law abiding citizens." Yet, several other states, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, continue to employ prisoners as call-center workers.
PLN ran an article on the call centers in 2011, noting they had been in operation for two decades. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.39].
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