Captive Market

Robbery suspects may call from jail, but the county and Ma Bell are the ones making out like bandits

"The people using the service are so desperate that they are afraid to do anything that would get them cut off," Hill says. He pays his own price for his passion to help inmates.

"Sometimes my phone bill is more than my rent because I accept so many collect calls from jail," he says.

Captain Don McWilliams of the sheriff's department says he knows of few complaints about the steep rate.

"I am sure that there are folks out there who are stunned when they get their phone bill," he says.

McWilliams says pay phones in the county jail are not necessary and could be replaced with toll-free phones for local calls. "If they did that, it wouldn't hurt our feelings at all," he says.

Inmate access to the phones is virtually unrestricted. McWilliams says the phones and televisions "are a good thing" in that they help relieve pressure in the 8,700-inmate county jail system.

Criminal-defense attorneys say that while the jail calls are a necessary but billable evil, they can amount to a sizable part of their phone bill.

Lawyer Bob C. Hunt complains that the calls unnecessarily inflate his phone bill. In some instances, he can't recover the cost of an inmate call because either he doesn't take the case or the inmate can't pay.

"It happens every month," he says. "A good third of my bill comes from those calls."

Hunt also complains about the county's automated system, which uses a recording to notify the answerer that there is a collect call from the jail and asks if the party answering will accept charges.

"It just says that it's a call from the jail," Hunt protests. "You never know who is going to be on the line." Nor does the recording mention the cost of the call.

Other lawyers such as Ron Mock, who handles many court-appointed cases, refuse to take the calls. "Generally all they want to do is talk. That's what mothers and fathers are for. They'll call four times a day. For what the courts are paying us, it's not worth it."

The PUC's Hadley says that the system may change because of new laws allowing competitors to challenge Southwestern Bell's monopoly on lockup calls.

Changes, however, may come too late for Maria, the mother with the wayward daughter.

"It was bad enough that my daughter had to spend a week in jail to learn her lesson about her behavior, but Southwestern Bell sure taught me a lesson as well," Maria says. "I'll never accept anybody's call from jail again. I can't afford it."

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