Those of you who have a loved one in prison undoubtedly share my frustration with the phone companies who control all phone calls from prisoners. Those of you who have not faced the difficulties of attempting to communicate with someone in prison might be interested to know about the ways in which major telecommunications companies make money off prisoners and their families.
All of my experiences with phone calls from prison deal with the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) and county jails in Texas, but I understand that the cost and accessibility of phone calls from prisoners vary in different state and federal prison and jail systems. However, to the best of my knowledge all phone calls made from prisons or jails in the United States are collect calls at rates significantly higher than those paid by folks making collect calls in the free world. (Side note: “Free world” is a common phrase used among prisoners, their families, and prison scholars and activists to describe the world outside of prisons. Despite the fact that there’s a whole lot about the world out here that is not truly free, it’s a convenient term for distinguishing between what is inside the prison and what is not.) The only instances in which prisoner phone calls are not collect occur when states set up an option for those receiving calls or prisoners who have money on their personal prison accounts to prepay for the phone minutes.
For the majority of my father’s incarceration, we were not able to speak on the phone regularly. TDC’s policy in the 1990s was to allow each prisoner only one fifteen-minute, collect phone call every ninety days. All calls, even today, are recorded by the prison, and at times in those early years I could hear a guard breathing on the phone line as I spoke to my father. My father hardly ever used his phone calls, saving them in case of emergency. Occasionally he would call us on Christmas or our birthdays, but he had no control over what time of day he might be allowed to call us. One Christmas he called at 4 AM because that was the only time the guards would give him access to the phone. We were terrified when the phone rang at that hour, thinking that someone had died, but it was such a rare treat to speak to him on the phone that we got over our shock and enjoyed the sound of his voice.
At some point in 2006 or 2007 (I can’t remember the exact year, but it was after I’d moved to North Carolina to work at UNC Chapel Hill.), we were granted phone privileges on a different order than we had previously experienced. Texas prisoners now have a certain number of phone minutes to use each month. I believe it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 minutes a month, and prisoners can only make collect calls to people who are on their visiting lists who have agreed to register their phone numbers with a company called Securus Technologies which TDC contracts to handle its prisoner phone service. Calls can only last fifteen minutes at a time, but prisoners can use the phone pretty much any time of day. Those of us receiving calls get a monthly bill for the charges to our phone lines. Each fifteen minute call costs me $7.85, or a little over 52 cents a minute.
For people like me who live very far from the prisons where our loved ones reside, phone calls help enormously to provide a semblance of family life. Having the ability to speak to my father on the phone on a regular basis means the world to both of us. That’s why it’s so upsetting when something goes wrong with our phone calls, and something seems to be wrong at least every other month.
Thank goodness I have a sister who also receives calls from my father because when my phone line is blocked from receiving calls, I don’t know it until my father calls my sister to report that he can’t get through on my line. My sister has as many problems with the phone company as I do, but fortunately we seldom seem to experience our phone troubles at the same time. The most common reason for our lines becoming blocked is that we’ve reached our charge limit of $85. It took us years to figure out how this was happening. Both of us pay our monthly bills for the phone service as soon as we receive them because we never want to miss a phone call from our father, yet we have regularly had our numbers blocked despite always paying our bills on time. For the first few years we had the phone service, we could never figure out how to get a real person from Securus to speak to us about what was going on with our lines. We could only reach an automated phone menu. Only within the last year have we finally been able to connect with a real billing person from Securus, and that person informed me that even though we’d never been told about this, there is an $85 limit on the amount of an outstanding balance that any call recipient from a Texas prisoner can have with Securus. Apparently in many of the other state prison systems with which Securus has contracts, all calls must be prepaid by those receiving them or the prisoner her/himself. Texas does not require this, so the alternative is that even if we have not missed a payment or been late, if last month’s and this month’s calls add up to more than $85 before your check for last month’s bill has reached Securus and gotten through about five days of processing at their company before it hits your billing statement, your phone line is blocked from receiving prisoner calls. Since neither Securus nor TDC notifies us when this happens, we only find out when my father attempts a call and cannot complete it. When I asked the person at Securus how I could prevent this from happening in future, she recommended that I pay more than my monthly balance each billing cycle in order to prevent future blockage of my line. As much as I don’t like doing this, it’s now common practice for me.
Despite the fact that my current overpaid balance with Securus is now -$23 and some change, I have not been able to receive phone calls from my father since the beginning of August. This is not entirely Securus’ fault, but they have certainly exacerbated the situation. It all began when Sprint, my cell phone provider, tried to convince me to upgrade my cell phone to a plan that would enable my husband and I to come out of the dark ages and receive email on our phones. We acquiesced to that, and the representative from Sprint then tried to convince us that we would save money by enabling them to take over our home phone and internet service, which we currently get from Time Warner Cable. We entertained this idea but vetoed it before the end of the sales pitch when we realized that Sprint wanted to replace our home phone line with an extra cell phone. Considerable confusion ensued when I tried to explain to this Sprint telemarketer somewhere in Southeast Asia that my father needed to be able to call me from prison on a land line. However, I was very firm in rejecting Sprint’s offer to take over my home phone service.
Then I went to the ATHE conference in Chicago and discovered that I got a funny recorded message when I tried to call my husband on our home line. My father soon discovered that he couldn’t call our house either. I called Time Warner to report the problem, and they said that Sprint had taken over my home phone number, despite the fact that I had never given them permission to do so. Several phone calls to Sprint and Time Warner got the issue resolved, but it took over three days to process, which meant that by the time the line was fixed I was in Las Vegas for the SSSP and ASA conferences and missed the window of opportunity when I’d been home where my father could call me.
Upon my return from Las Vegas, I received a message from my sister letting me know that our father told her he still could not get through on my phone line. I called Securus who told me that my land line was now registered in their system as a cell phone and was therefore blocked. I explained the situation to them, and they instructed me to get a copy of my bill from Time Warner and send it to them. Since my Time Warner bill comes to me online now rather than in paper form, I had to go to their website to request a copy of the bill. I was unable to do this because I needed a Customer Code, which can be found on one’s paper bill, which, of course, I didn’t have. I called Time Warner and found that their billing department had closed for the night, just five minutes before I called. The next day I was able to reach someone at Time Warner, got an email copy of my bill, and sent it to the folks at Securus. After about four email exchanges with Securus, I received the following email from them:
Be advised that the Time Warner statement you’ve submitted does not contain [your] phone number. Also if your issue has been resolved (Time Warner corrected the issue by having the number read as a landline), there is nothing we can do until the information has been received electronically and updated in our database. As of right now 8/23/11 5:22 p.m. CST our system still reads it as a cell phone. Is there anything else we can assist you with?
Dear Staff at Securus,
I do not know what further documentation to submit to you to prove that my phone is a landline. Is there any way that I could have a person at Time Warner call you to verify my information, or perhaps could you call them? I do not understand what information gets sent to you electronically or how that data is transmitted, but [my number] is a land line with digital phone service provided by Time Warner Cable. Please tell me what else I can do to resolve this issue, and I will gladly do it.
What I actually wanted to say to them was:
Dear Staff at Securus,
How is it that you can always find a reason to block my phone but are never helpful in resolving issues with my account? Wouldn’t you make more money off already exploited prisoners’ families by having effective customer service? How do you sleep at night knowing that you make such exorbitant profits off people who are struggling to maintain family ties to prisoners and thereby are doing one of the only things that actually helps prevent recidivism?
Do you have any idea how much these phone calls mean to us or how devastating it is not to receive them? What would you do if you only had the time and funds to spend a total of twenty-four hours visiting your father in person each year?
For God’s sake, have a heart.
One of Your Best Customers
Though I didn’t say that to them, they responded to my last real email with this:
Thank you for contacting Securus Correctional Billing Services. We have finally received the information update needed for us to know the phone number is a land line once again. We have ran a test on the line for you to double check that it has cleared your account. At this time we are happy to advise you that your phone number is once again clear to receive calls from the TDCJ facility. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please feel free to let us know.
Securus Correctional Billing Services
So, just a few hours after they’d told me my line was blocked and that I had basically no recourse to fix it, the situation was miraculously resolved. In this case, as with so many things in the prison system, logic does not prevail. Uncertainty and frustration characterize interactions with the prison power structure and those corporate and government entities connected to it. We, as prisoners’ family members, must be vigilant and insistent to maintain access to our loved ones, but this poses significant challenges for families with few resources and little time. I have battled these phone companies with full access to the internet and a reliable income with which to pay my bills. My family members and I have college educations and social networks which aid us in navigating the system, and still we struggle to figure out what is happening inside the prison and how we can gain consistent access to my father. Families and individuals far less privileged than us face even more terrible challenges. I have heard many stories from other prisoners’ families about not being able to pay for electricity or other basic necessities because of the extreme cost of prison phone bills.
Though I am deeply grateful for the ability to talk to my father on the phone now that my service has been restored, I still hate the phone companies for the power they hold over our lives, for the corporate intervention in the private life of my family. I understand that I need the phone company in order to provide this form of access, and I fear them for their ability, and their frequent tendency, to deny my father’s voice to me yet again.