Prisoners' families protest phone costs

Posted: Tuesday, June 06, 2000

In recent years, another price has come with conviction, and it falls on the families of prisoners. Their phone bills go way up.

Steve Findsen's son is serving time for a first-degree sexual assault conviction in the Arizona private prison holding 814 Alaskans. He said his phone bills were outrageous after his son was moved from Alaska to a private prison in Florence, Ariz.

``Our bills were anywhere from $250 to $350 a month,'' said Findsen, who lives in Juneau. A trip to Arizona costs a lot more, he said, so he's got little choice.

Allen Cooper, who runs the state's Division of Institutions, however, said the rates for prisoners in Alaska are not out of line with what other customers pay for collect calls.

Findsen's experience is shared by families with family in prisons across the country, according to Kay Perry of Kalamazoo, Mich. She's the coordinator for the eTc Campaign, which is supported by a wide variety of prison-rights organizations. She said the phone rates being charged to the families of prisoners, especially those held in private prisons away from home, are criminal.

Families, she said, shouldn't have to pay for trying to support their brothers, daughters, husbands or wives over the phone.

``All we're guilty of is loving someone, caring for someone,'' she said. ``It's a problem in every state, not just Alaska.'' She said private companies are making money off prisoners without options, and states are collecting cash off convicts' families. She wants to see surcharges abolished and the use of debit calling cards expanded.

Of particular interest to prisoner-rights advocates is Evercom. That Texas-based company contracts with Corrections Corp. of America, which is the largest private prison company in the United States.

CCA didn't return phone calls this week.

Evercom, which has a seven-year agreement to run the phone system for most Alaska prisons, gives the state $225,000 a year out of its profits. Cooper said the money the state gets isn't considered a profit by the Legislature. Rather, it's state revenue.

``My feeling was that I don't care if they don't pay a dime,'' he said. When the state asked for proposals from prison phone companies, he said, there was no request for money to be returned to the state.

The rates charged for operator-assisted collect calls -- a $1.55 connect charge and variable per minute charges based on the time and the distance -- are the same for Evercom as for other long distance telephone companies in Alaska, said Cooper. That was confirmed by the Empire. Those kinds of calls, however, are about the most expensive kinds you can make.

The 4-cents per minute, 5-cents per minute deals ordinary phone customers with calling plans and a fixed residential phone line can get are not available, said Bobb Swope, vice president of marketing and sales for Evercom.

``Our view is that the rates are, in fact, fair and equitable,'' he said. ``It's not like there's a calling plan or a permanent phone that can be expected to pay.''

To call from Arizona, Alaska prisoners pay a $3 connect fee and 45 cents per minute. Those rates are also about what other phone companies here charge for operator-assisted long distance collect calls.

The phone systems have spurred lawsuits. One, a class-action suit filed in Washington D.C. by the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, alleges that families who pay the bills are having their rights to speech and association violated, that the phone systems used by CCA are anti-competitive, and that provisions of telecommunications law and of consumer protection laws have been broken.

Similar lawsuits in the past, said Swope, have failed or are still in the court system of a handful of states.

One of the reasons the company charges prisoners more is the technology needed to screen calls and the like. Also, he said, it's a matter of unpaid bills. He said 12 percent to 45 percent of the bills charged by Evercom are never paid.

A relatively new system for handling prisoner calls, in which convicts use debit calling cards, has been working, he said. It's an option available in Arizona but not Alaska, Swope said. Using the cards is cheaper for short calls, but more expensive for longer ones.

Cooper said the phone system of today is better than it was. Back in the 1970s state prisons allowed one call a month. That moved up to four a week, then unlimited calls were allowed.

``Prisoners merely made an operator assisted call,'' he said. ``It was terrible.''

Terrible because convicts could call anyone, including victims and witnesses.

Now, a collect call from a prison spurs an automated notice to the person called. It informs them who's calling and asks if they want to accept the call. With a command, the person called can prevent future prison calls to his or her phone number, Cooper said.

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