An overnight spike in prisoner phone rates compelled Oregon prison officials to switch to a new prisoner phone service provider on July 1, 2012. Most prisoners consider the new company's lower rates and enhanced services a major upgrade.
Most of Oregon's 14,200 prisoners live on the Westside of the State, in the Willamette Valley. Yet over half of those prisoners are confined in far-away prisons on the Washington, Idaho or California borders; anywhere from 2-10 hours away from their loved one. That distance and outrageously high telephone rates have made staying in touch and maintaining strong family bonds virtually impossible for many prisoners.
In 2004, the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) contracted with Value-Added Communications (VAC) – now Global Tel*Link (GTL) – to provide prisoner phone services. Prisoners hated VAC from the beginning, leading to at least two prison-wide phone boycotts –the first of which lasting several weeks – over VAC policies.
Of course, excessive and disparate phone rates was the most common complaint. Family in Portland who accepted a 30-minute collect call from one of the 3,500 prisoners on the Idaho or California borders, were charged $20.01 ($3.95 + 69¢/min). If the prisoner made a prepaid call, the cost dropped to $13.05 ($2.35 + 45¢/min). Family in Portland who accepted 30-minute collect calls from most of the State's other 11,000 prisoners were charged $5.04 ($1.85 + 11¢/min). Prepaid call costs dropped to $4.07 ($1.46 + 9¢/min). A 30-minute collect call to another state cost $29.76 ($3.95 + 89¢/min). Prepaid, that call cost $15.95 ($2.35 + 55¢/min). If lucky enough to get an international call to go through, calling home to Mexico, Japan or other countries, cost their loved ones at least $31.00 for a single 30-minute collect call ($2.00 + $1.00/min); though some countries ran as high as $5.00 per minute, bringing the total to $147.00 for a 30-minute call!
The only prisoners who did not pay extremely high VAC phone rates were those who made local calls. A collect call to a phone number in the same city as the prison, cost $2.64, regardless of duration. Prepaid, the cost dropped to $1.75.
This harsh disparity compelled many family members of prisoners confined in far-away prisons to purchase cellphones in the same town, so the prisoner could make local calls at $1.75, rather than $20.01. Of course, VAC didn't like that development, but they couldn't do anything about it; or so it seemed.
Apparently fed up, on February 1, 2011, VAC jacked the local call phone rates from $1.75 to $5.05 without any notice to prisoners, their families or ODOC officials.
"I did not receive any word whatsoever that they were raising my rates," said Shelly Seiber, whose husband was incarcerated. "It's not right."
ODOC officials agreed. "We immediately launched an investigation into what happened and why the department wasn't alerted by our inmate phone service provider ahead of any proposed rate changes," ODOC reported on its website.
Ultimately, ODOC officials discovered that VAC's action violated two contractual terms: 30-day advance notice of any collect call rate changes; and mutual agreement on debit call rate changes. "In this case, neither action occurred," according to ODOC. "As a result, the state demanded that rates for inmate phone calls be immediately returned to previous levels. We also requested repayment of extra charges incurred by inmates or families during the period of time when the rate changes occurred."
VAC complied two days later but prison officials had seen enough. They elected to terminate VAC's contract and move to Oregon-based Telemate, LLC. However, litigation between VAC and ODOC ultimately delayed that switch for about a year.
Telemate began offering telephone services via voice over internet technology on July 1, 2012. Although prisoners making local calls at $1.75 were initially upset that their call costs increased, the majority of ODOC prisoners were ecstatic to see a substantial drop in phone rates for the first time in memory.
Gone are VAC's initial hookup fees and disparate rates per minute. Telemate charges a flat 16¢ per minute anywhere in the United States. So a Salem prisoner can now place a 30-minute call to downtown, New York or Hawaii for the same $4.80. International calls are now just 50¢ per minute, dropping that $147.00 call home to just $15.00.
Also gone are VAC's: 40-number approved caller list that prisoners were denied copies of; delays, by upwards of 6 weeks, to transfer money from a prisoner's trust account to a VAC prepaid call account; outrageous $7.95 service fees charged to family members who add money to prisoner prepaid accounts by credit card; and many other annoying problems.
But what's gone is only a very small part of the story. Telemate offers many more services – for a price, of course – than VAC ever did. Now, family and friends can call Telemate at (866)516-0115 or go on their website (www.telemate.com) and leave their incarcerated loved one a voicemail of up to 3-minutes for $1.25.
Prisoners can check their prison trust account balance in real time and transfer money from that account to their prepaid call account by phone. Money is transferred within 48-hours and a voicemail message alerts the prisoner when the funds are available. Family can also send funds to the prisoner's trust or phone accounts, electronically at Telemate's website.
Quite possibly the coolest things ever sold to ODOC prisoners are the 4 GB and 8 GB MP3 players (about half the size of a pack of cigarettes) and music downloads Telemate offers. The 4 GB player is $120 and the 8 GB is $140, with a $15 AC adapter, a $15 protective case and a $30 keyboard. Song downloads are $1.75 per song – with $1.60 going to Telemate and 150 to ODOC. While it often took 6-8 weeks to get a CD order, MP3 songs are generally available for download within 48- to 72-hours of purchase.
What's with the keyboard, you ask? It is necessary to access yet another Telemate service: emails and photographs on the MP3 player. Family and friends can set up accounts at (www.accesscorrections.com) to send photos electronically to a prisoner's MP3 and to send and receive emails. Photos cost 600, but drop to as low as 400 a photo, if multiple photo packages are purchased. Likewise, a single email is the cost of a first class stamp (440) but drops to 230 if 60 messages are purchased for $13.74. While not as quick as regular email, messages typically travel quicker and are more convenient than Snail Mail.
Ignoring the weekly Toys R Us ads, advertising 8 GB MP3s with more features for $30, most prisoners really love their player. Each time an MP3 is plugged into a central Kiosk, the most recent version of the 5 million-plus song catalog, any ordered music, emails and photos are downloaded to the MP3. Outgoing emails are uploaded to the kiosk at the same time.
Finally, Telemate is offering "Video Interactive Phone Calls" (VIP)(aka Video Visiting) at 66¢ per minute for a maximum of 30 minutes ($19.80). "VIP calls will allow family and friends to visit you by using their personal computer, laptop, or tablet," ODOC reports.
Video visiting "is going to benefit us a lot," said prisoner Brian K. Yancy who is confined three hours from home, on the California border. "When the weather's bad, you worry about your family traveling through the mountains. And the economy isn't too good."
He is pleased to be able to see his children every month. "The kids can see me more often, and it will be like having both their parents around," he said. It will also improve connections with his wife. "You can talk on the phone, but it's hard to have a relationship when you can't see that person."
ODOC Director Colette Peters believes the new technology will benefit the 59 percent of ODOC prisoners who get no visitors. A landmark Minnesota study found that "any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations."
"We know scientifically that visiting is good not just in order to create safe prisons," said Peters. "It actually improves public safety and prevents future victimization."
Prison officials also seem to like other aspects of the Telemate system. Naturally, ODOC continues to receive "commissions" totaling $3 million annually. They also correctly anticipate that all the new Telemate service fees that prisoners and their families will voluntarily pay will generate substantial revenues on top of the ordinary commission.
Staff can communicate with prisoners via voice or text messages, which they hope will save time. "This enhances our productivity tremendously in ways we couldn't ever use tax money to fund. The cost would be prohibitive," said Kelly Morton, an ODOC policy manager. "This is very good for the taxpayers and DOC."
All calls, voice and text messages are recorded, giving prison officials a new investigative tool. Call information "is very valuable for looking for patterns of extortion, theft, that kind of thing," said Morton. Montana Department of Corrections (MDOC) investigations Chief Dale Tunnell agrees. "We've made some really good cases involving contraband" with Telemate's system, said Tunnell.
Of course, the new Telemate system is not without problems or critics. ODOC rules prohibit "three-way calls" which "occur any time a call is passed on to another location/number while remaining connected to the original number." Telemate has gone to the ridiculous extreme in its enforcement of this ODOC rule. If someone the prisoner calls answers a separate cell phone – or is even heard speaking to another person in the same room – during a call, Telemate has determined that the prisoner violated ODOC's "three-way call" rule. Telemate then summarily imposes a $25 fine and limits calls to the "offending" phone number. The prisoner is notified of the sanction by voicemail message but is denied a hearing or any other process to contest the "three-way call" finding or sanction. ODOC claims to be innocent and to have no control over the Telemate disciplinary action, even though Telemate is ODOC's contractor and is purportedly enforcing ODOC rules. Given that prisoners have a property interest in their money, affected prisoners and call recipients are bringing legal challenges against this Telemate/ODOC practice.
Another system drawback is that it cannot be accessed at times. Telemate's voice recognition software does not recognize a person's voice when they have a cold or there is too much background noise in the room, preventing them from making a call.
Nevertheless, the benefits of the Telemate system far outweigh its problems. For instance, just before Christmas, 2012, Telemate left each ODOC prisoner a voicemail message, wishing them happy holidays and giving them two free calls that they could use any time before January 1, 2013.
"They think it's great," said Tunnell, noting that Montana prisoners have made dramatically more calls under the Telemate system than its predecessor. The same appears to be true in Oregon.
Sources: The Oregonian; Telemate.com; ODOC inmate newsletters
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