Phone Tag

This is what the phones in the housing unit looked like at my last Level I facility.

Communication with friends and family in the free world is very important to those serving time in prison.  There are four primary means of communication available to inmates: phone calls, email, snail mail, and visits.  For some visits are a rare treat to savor, while these other forms of communication take precedent and occur at greater frequency.

In the housing units and on the yard are phones that can be used when the housing unit or yard are open.  Collect and pre-paid debit calls can be made to a limited number of phone numbers each month (check for change to the phone policy).  Except for calls to lawyers, the calls are recorded and possibly monitored.  A phone call can last 15 minutes.

Given the ratio of inmates to phones there is almost always a line of people waiting to get on the phone.  There is no privacy in prison and the phones are no exception.  The phones are clustered together making it easy for other inmates to overhear half of the conversation.  Many prefer to use the outdoor phones since it tends to be a little quieter than in the housing units.

Phone service is under contract with a private service provider that is responsible for the upkeep of the system.  It seems that at any one time at least one phone in four is out of service.  Men in prison experience high levels of stress and frustration and tend to take it out on those they are talking to on the phones and when that is not good enough they take it out on the phones themselves.  The current carrier is Global Tel Link (GTL).  Phone rates are a national issue and both the FCC and the federal courts have gotten involved trying to set fair rates.  Prisons are captive markets and almost every vendor under contract to the MDOC to provide services and products to inmates take advantage of that by charging significantly more than what the general public normally pays with a free market. With the MDOC these higher prices generally translate into so portion of the proceeds being shared by the department.  In the real world we would call this a kick back, but it is business as usual for Corrections.  In the case of GTL, they offered to set up a fund where the states portion of the revenue proceeds would go to buy cell phone detection and blocking technology to combat the growing problem of contraband cell phones in prisons.  (At the time of the contract award it was against federal law for the states to utilize this form of technology.)  The result is that prison phone calls cost $0.34 -$0.37 per minute, depending on whether they are collect or debit calls.  Long distance and international calling rates were even higher.  Now this is far better than the county jail were calls could cost $1.00 per minute, which is outrageous and far beyond what calls cost in the free world.  It is clearly a case of the state and counties making profit from those that can least afford it.  At one point the courts ruled that it was predatory pricing and ordered that phone rates be reduced, however the phone companies that provide services to prisons and jails successfully lobbied to get a stay while further study was done.

Either an inmate can put money on a disbursement to GTL to setup a debit account to pay for phone calls or those that receive the calls can either contract with a phone carrier that will allow them to receive collect calls and then bill their account or they can put money on a debit account of their own with GTL.  When I was in the county jail the hardest phone call I have ever had to make in my life was to my mother.  Fortunately, it was a land line and the carrier allowed them to accept the charges.  Cell phone carriers don’t work that way and you have to set up the prepaid debit account.  I was fortunate enough that I had the luxury of calling home collect and put money on a debit account so that I could call my family’s cell phones in case of emergency or vacation. Most people in prison don’t have that luxury.  I made it a practice to call home for 15 minutes once a week for the 8 years that I served behind bars.  This probably ran into the thousands of dollars in order to keep the lines of communication open.  Not everybody in prison will be able to afford this, although I knew several married guys who called home daily to talk to their wife and kids.

Being able to have the ability to pick up the phone and make a call is a major comfort to people in prison.  I knew a lot of guys whose priority was putting money on the phone instead of purchasing commissary items.  If you have a loved one in prison the best thing you can do for them is to set up a pre-paid debit account so they can call your cell phone and talk to you any time they can.  In a place so full of stress and hostility, being able to hear a friendly voice is a comfort and a blessing beyond words.

This is what a JPay kiosk looks like. You can send and receive email using a very limited function computer terminal.

Starting around 2010 the MDOC brought in another vendor JPay to provide a form of electronic communication.  Friends and family can register on the JPay website and buy “stamps” to send what amounts to email to prisoners.  In the housing units, prisoners can then use a kiosk with a monitor and a keyboard where they can send and receive JPay messages.  The inmate can only send messages to people who have registered on the JPay website to communicate with them. The inmates can also buy “stamps”.  It costs about $0.50 per “page” to send a message.  Messages can even have photo attachments.  These messages are subject to the MDOC mail policy.

Snail mail through the good old USPS is also a good way to keep in contact with inmates. In 2017 the prisoner mail policy was updated due to contraband being sent to prisoners. Envelopes are discarded because of drugs being hidden in the adhesive under stamps, flaps, or address labels. Also, black or blue ink only, no colored ink, borders, or water marks.  Photos printed on plain paper only are permitted.  Forget sending stuff like newspaper articles, magazines, church bulletins, etc.  Greeting cards also have restrictions.

Children will longer be able to send their daddies refrigerator art.  It is as if the MDOC wants to discourage people from sending snail mail to prisoners.  The same thing has occurred in county jails where the only permissible format is a postcard.

Prisoners can purchase letter sized envelopes with metered postage.  The story is that back in the day, prisoners actually purchased postage stamps but that these would be treated like currency and used to pay prison debts among prisoners who would send the stamps to people in the free world who could return the stamps to the USPS for cash.  I can’t verify this but it was told to me by a lifer bunkie who had been down since the 1970’s.  It is an example of how those held against their will will attempt to find ways to circumvent the system.  And that a few will ruin it for everyone.

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