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Alaska Prisoners Riot Over Excessive Phone Rates

by Christopher Zoukis

A disturbance at Alaska's Lemon Creek Correctional Center left a housing unit uninhabitable after prisoners and guards clashed over the prison's excessive telephone rates, a "smartmouth" guard's comments on the subject, and other issues.

According to prisoners formerly housed in the dorm, on October 9, 2015, between 9 and 10 p.m., prisoner telephone calls were abruptly cut off and, fed up with the excessive phone rates, several prisoners became agitated by the fact that they would be charged for the calls anyhow. When a guard commented on the matter in an insulting manner, tensions were escalated. "This was triggered by a smartmouth and these outrageous phone charges, said Chris Davidson, a prisoner now in more secure confinement in an interview with the Juneau Empire newspaper. "That sparked the whole god damned thing."

In September, 2014, the Alaska Department of Corrections instituted a new telephone system operated by a Texas-based provider called Securus. The new system allows prisoners to call cellphone numbers, which were previously blocked, but it is more cumbersome to use and more expensive than the previous system. Alaska now charges prisoners $1.00 for a 15 minute local call, and long-distance calls can cost $4.00 or more. However, each call is charged the same, whether it lasts a few seconds or the full fifteen minutes, and all calls are collect. The Juneau Empire reported that it was charged $3.51 for three calls lasting 28 minutes, but paying by credit card raised the bill to $10.46, or 37 cents a minute. The paper noted that the price for the calls was more than that charged by AT&T for a landline call from Alaska to South Africa.

Simply utilizing the Securus system is awkward. To speak for more than 20 seconds, the collect call recipient must register with the firm's database, providing their name, mailing address, and even an email address, in addition to their telephone number. A reporter for the Empire called this a "confusing process" that took 20 minutes to accomplish. Prisoners cannot leave voicemail messages or utilize directory assistance or 800 numbers, and services like Vonage or Google Phone are prohibited. The only no-cost calls permitted are to some attorneys and social welfare organizations, such as job centers and food banks.

As previously reported by PLN, the Alaska Department of Corrections has earned hefty profits when prisoners make telephone calls [See: PLN, Apr. 2011, p. 1]. Joshua Decker, executive director of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a complaint with the Alaska Regulatory Commission in December, 2014, urging it to reject the rate hikes currently in place, and following the disturbance at Lemon Creek, noted that "everybody's paying hundreds of dollars just to keep in contact with their families."

Against this backdrop, another prisoner, "Alec," said that prisoners had been "on edge" about the telephone rates. "The most important things we have in here are connections with our family."

On October 9, 2015, after the telephones abruptly disconnected, prisoners gathered, and around 11:15 p.m., E Dorm at Lemon Creek erupted. Prisoners uprooted tables, broke a window, and barricaded the door. About an hour later, after guards introduced pepper spray into the dorm, order was restored, although a Department of Corrections spokesperson said that the dorm had been left uninhabitable, and visitation at the facility was canceled.


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