Nearly 80% of Texas prison inmates will qualify for phone privileges under new rules promulgated yesterday by TDCJ, AP reports ("Texas prisoners on verge of getting regular phone privileges," Jan. 24):
I couldn't find a copy of the policy on TDCJ's website, but in general I favor the plan for a number of reasons not mentioned in the article: It helps maintain family ties, reduces cell phone smuggling, and provides a significant incentive for good behavior among inmates. I'm also hoping more regular phone access will increase information to family members and ultimately the public about problems inside TDCJ; it's a lot harder to cover things up when prisoners have a way to tell somebody in the free world what's happening.
The Texas Board of Criminal Justice on Wednesday approved rules governing use of telephones, and agency officials said they would draw up within a few days proposals for bids from companies hoping to land a contract to install and manage the phones in the nation's second-largest corrections system.
Texas is believed to be the only state not to have such a phone operation. Prison administrators traditionally had opposed routine phone privileges, arguing telephone access raised security and staffing concerns.
But state lawmakers, saying technology had overcome the long-standing uneasiness, overwhelmingly passed a measure last year that directed prison officials have a phone system contract in hand by Aug. 31.
"We're following what we were told to do," said Christina Melton Crain, chairman of the prison board. "During the last legislative session, the state leadership mandated that the board and agency put such a phone system in place.
"The implementation of these policies is the first step toward making this mandate a reality."
Following the bill's passage, Gov. Rick Perry said he had misgivings the measure would allow pedophiles and violent offenders among the state's some 155,000 inmates to have phone access, but he chose not to veto it because he believed prison officials could set up appropriate rules governing phone use. The measure had passed unanimously in the Senate and cleared the House by a vote of 142-1. ...
Some corrections experts believe the availability of phone communication allows inmates to keep in regular touch with relatives, that allowing continued phone access can be used as an incentive for good behavior by a convict, and that it can ease the financial strain on relatives who want to visit an inmate in a prison far from them.
How much it would cost people receiving the calls is not known, Livingston said. The rules allow friends and relatives to purchase time for phone use that an inmate could use like a debit card.
The vendor will install and manage the system and the state will get a portion of the revenue. The first $10 million each year from commissions generated by the calls is to go to the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
The Legislative Budget Board last year estimated annual revenue about $5.8 million, meaning all of the money would go into the victims fund. If revenue topped $10 million, 50 percent of the excess would go to the compensation fund and the other 50 percent to the state's general fund.
The rules don't overly restrict an inmate's phone access but do limit calls to people on a preapproved phone list for each inmate.
In general, prisoners eligible to make calls would have to be free of major disciplinary violations within the previous 90 days, have a prison job, be in school or in a treatment program. Officials believe that accounts for about 120,000 inmates. One phone will be installed for each 30 inmates, meaning about 4,000 phones will be put in common areas of prisons like day rooms.
Calls would be allowed only within the continental U.S. and could be made only to land lines, not cell phones.
Inmates would have unlimited calls but couldn't exceed more than 15 minutes per call and 120 minutes per month. Calls to an inmate's lawyer of record, protected under attorney-client privilege, would not be monitored or recorded.
Under the current procedures, inmates with good behavior records are allowed one five-minute collect call to an approved person every 90 days and only with the permission of a warden. When the call is made, a prison staff member is in the room to monitor the call, a labor-intensive procedure that takes the employee away from other duties.
The phone system also is seen as a way to combat a growing problem of cell phones being smuggled into the state's prisons.
We've seen a surge in prisoners sending letters home that friends and family members use to create prisoner blogs; maybe when this new technology is in place we'll see audio podcasts from prisoners calling home. Wouldn't that be something?
Concerns about the phones' use for criminal purposes, to me, are mitigated by the restricted calling list and recording conversations (except attorney calls). With those restrictions in place, I think the benefits far outweigh the detriments. The agency will put out a request for bids for the project, AP reports, within the next week.