Captive Market

Inmate activist Ray Hill says the steep charge gouges families of prisoners.
Houston Press

Time and time again, when the call from the jail came, she hopped in the family station wagon and bailed her daughter out of jail.

But Maria (she asked that her last name not be used) tired of her child's misdemeanor frays -- truancy, shoplifting, public intoxication and other minor offenses.

When a collect phone call from jail arrived a few years ago, Maria accepted it, but she'd had enough of her child's indiscretions. She left her daughter in jail and only talked via telephone with her.

The daughter got out of jail after about a week, but the full cost of that incarceration didn't become clear until later. When Maria, a mother of limited means who lives only a few miles from the jail, got her phone company bill, there were $85 in collect calls -- local collect calls -- from the jail.

Another family had suddenly discovered that the price of an arrest in Harris County is more than attorney bills, bail amounts, court fees, fines or even freedom. Right there with the others guaranteed to get a piece of the action is none other than Ma Bell. Nearly $10 million annually is jingling in from those Harris County Jail calls.

For most Texans who use a Southwestern Bell pay telephone, the cost is 35 cents, chump change. But there is another set of customers whose friends, relatives and lawyers pay a lot more for the opportunity to practice free speech over the phone lines. Local collect calls received from prisoners in city and county jails across the state cost a whopping $3 per local call to those who accept the charges.

Bell says it does not discriminate. Any local collect call from a pay phone in the company's vast calling area costs $3 for the person who accepts it. But few folk on the outside are short of the 35 cents in change that it takes to make a local call.

For those wondering why prisoners don't just drop in a quarter and a dime, they can't. All money, even change, is confiscated from inmates when they are booked into jail. And in the Harris County Jail, at least, there are only pay phones in the cellblocks.

So the most captive audience in Texas is handing Southwestern Bell big bucks. How big? Spokeswoman Amber White says nobody is likely to find out, because the total figure is, uh, an unlisted number as far as Ma Bell's concerned.

Texas Public Utilities Commission spokesman Terry Hadley says he believes Bell does not have to publicly disclose the amount because it is not even required to be revealed to the commission.

Governmental jurisdictions throughout the telephone company's system are also profiting from crime, or at least from those accused of it. Spokeswoman White says the company negotiates its contracts on an individual basis with cities and counties. "Revenue is shared with the facility. The percentage varies with the contract."

In the case of Harris County, White is slightly off base. The revenue is not shared exclusively with the Harris County Jail. It goes into the county's fund for general operations.

Harris County gets 48 percent of the revenue from the calls. It reports that Bell kicked back almost $4 million to county coffers for the '97-'98 fiscal year and almost $5 million for '98-'99. That puts total combined revenues received by both the phone company and the county at nearly $10 million yearly.

In today's highly competitive telecommunications market, where some long-distance calls are going for as little as a nickel a minute, $3 is stout by any measure. Many of the calls from prisoners last only long enough to inform whoever accepts the call that the other person is in jail and wants to be bonded out.

According to the state's utility commission, the company can charge as much as it likes for these calls because there is no regulation regarding pay phone collect rates, from jails or anywhere else.

"There is no ceiling," the PUC's Hadley says.

But there usually is a ceiling on the amount of money the families of many inmates can afford to pay when they talk to their incarcerated loved ones. Inmate advocate Ray Hill says some inmates' families reach that ceiling all too quickly.

"I've seen instances where a family's bill normally is $21 per month," Hill says. "Then somebody in the family goes to jail, and before they know it, the bill jumps to $300 for the month because of the collect calls from jail. They can't pay the bill, and they lose the phone altogether."

Hill says Bell is disproportionately preying on the poor, because most people in jail, and their families, are needy. "They are price-gouging the poorest families in the state for money which those families could be using to buy bread and milk."

He calls the contract relationship between counties, cities and Southwestern Bell "corrupt."

Hill, however, estimates that only about half of the inmates have anyone to call at all. "They either have no family, or their behavior has been such that nobody wants to take a call from them."

The utility commission has received few, if any, complaints against Bell regarding the charges made on collect calls from jail.

"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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