Quarter Masters

The jail lobby's two-bit machine
Deron Neblett

Downtown's somewhat depressed far north side at times can seem heavy with hard-luck types looking for handouts. But the most persistent of those street people pale in comparison to the most unlikely of spare-change panhandlers: county government.

About 30 storage lockers sit along a far wall in the main lobby of the central county jail at 1301 Franklin. The lockers, similar to those in bus depots or bowling alleys, are an amenity for people waiting to see inmates. The sheriff's department doesn't allow visitors to take purses, briefcases or other accessories into secure areas, so guests can store those items in the lockers temporarily.

Users put a quarter in the locker's slot for a small unit; the large one goes for two quarters, and the county gets the money.

For those who don't have enough quarters on hand, the county offers another "convenience." Adjacent to the lockers is a standard money-changing machine for dollar bills. Just like with the changers at car washes or Laundromats, users feed in a dollar and the slot below spits out quarters.

Here, the county shows how it's a real pro at profiteering off prisoners' family members and friends, as well as lawyers and anybody else in need of temporary storage. "Change machine," the sign reads. "$.75 for $1.00. No refund." In other words, the fee is 25 percent -- a quarter -- for making change on a buck.

A phone sampling of companies that deal in automatic bill changers indicated that county government is unique in having a machine that charges customers for making change. "You're kidding me," one changer in the private sector said in disbelief. "That's crazy."

Details were not exactly forthcoming about the arrangement and beneficiary of the diverted quarters. Lieutenant Robert Van Pelt, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, explained that the unique money changer is the domain of the county's facilities and property management department. "This is the first time I've heard this brought up," he said. "The sheriff's department doesn't have anything to do with those things. Why it is set up like that, I don't know. You'd have to ask [property management]."

A staffer for county property director Michael Yancey initially responded that the changer is operated by the county's employee credit union. A manager at the credit union quickly corrected that, noting that it runs only the automatic teller machine in the jail. Yancey did not return Houston Press calls by deadline.

The bill changer is only the latest example of profiteering at the jail. The county and Southwestern Bell split about $10 million annually from the mandatory toll calls -- anyone who accepts even a local call from an inmate is charged $3 (see "Captive Market," by Steven Long, November 25, 1999). Those familiar with jail operations say the sheriff's department used to add to its revenues with relatively modest prices for inmate services -- then the county took over and pumped up profits even more for the general fund.

Ray Hill, a longtime advocate for the incarcerated, laughed bitterly when told of the money changer.

"That's [Sheriff] Tommy Thomas at work again," Hill said. "You're not going to get anybody to tell you this, but it is still the sheriff's office that regulates the phones and everything else involving the jail…Nothing is in that building that is not controlled by the sheriff."

It amounts to law enforcement officers "converting the money from prisoners' families into their own pockets," Hill said. "A lot of people who wear sheriff's uniforms and prison guard uniforms are more larcenous than the people they supervise."

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