Saturday, October 21, 2006

What's wrong with giving prisoners phone service?

An interesting anomaly arises in the comments to this Grits post about guards smuggling hundreds of cell phones into Texas prisons: Punitive, ill-conceived state policies lie at root of the problem in many ways. Here's why:

First, low guard pay and high turnover contributes to guard corruption.

Second, inmates receive high enhanced sentences for phone use just as though they were caught with more dangerous contraband. An offender caught with a cell phone on the first offense will be charged with an enhanced 2d degree felony. In one case a fellow got 40 years added to his sentence, while the guard got 4 years. If those sentences were reveresed - if guards smuggling contraband were punished more than inmates who wanted to call home - the amount of cell-phone smuggling into Texas prison would decline radically. (For logistical reasons, only guards can get the phones past prison metal detectors, while drugs and other contraband enter through other means.)

Third, maintaining family ties is critically important to preventing recidivism and facilitating prisoner re-entry after their sentence is complete. Preventing contact with families punishes children, in particular (half of men and 2/3 of women in TX prisons have minor children on the outside), in my experience much more than the offender, and much more than most people realize.

Finally, and from a public policy perspective by far most importantly, there's really no good reason to limit inmates' phone access in so draconian a fashion. In-cell access to phone service could be a privilege rewarded for good behavior, and I'll bet it'd be a good incentive. That would reduce corruption among guards and even generate income for TDCJ (I'll leave aside my beef with profiteering from the collect-call system till another time). Limit the numbers it can dial to, say, 3 per inmate. Record the calls and take it away when it's abused.

You'd have some inmates who try to use the phones for criminal purposes, but right now those guys just pay somebody $500 for a cell phone. In most cases, I think it would work out fine.

MORE: From the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer on whether really poses a "grave danger to society."


Anonymous said...

If corrections is already thoroughly corrupt, they will fight every attempt to counter corruption, and they will probably prevail.

Anonymous said...

Isn't one of the problems the fact that gang members can coordinate their gang activities with other members? Wouldn't it also be a problem for prisoners to coordinate activities?

For example, one prisoner calls another in a different cell block when the guard starts heading that way.

I'm sorry but the public safety angle is too important to change this policy. I am sure that there would be too many negative consequences if cell phones were allowed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sure gang use for criminal activities is a problem; that's why you record the calls and cancel access for misuse. The problem is, right now anyone with cash can buy a cell phone - certainly the gangs have them.

That's why we need policies to reduce the frequency of guards smuggling cell phones into prisons. I've proposed an approach that focuses on reducing both supply and demand. More enforcement by itself never worked with drugs and won't work with cell phones, either, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Grits for taking this up. Its one thing I really struggle to understand with the TDCJ system. All the points you make are the ones I regularly put forward, only to be told that until COs get higher pay they will never approve of inmates having better access to phones ~ an equation that still doesnt make sense even though I think the COs should get more pay as well!

The most recent legislature came very close to approving a phone system for TDCJ, and even had the support of the major victim's charities, because they too can see that not having phone access (more than one 5 minute call by speakerphone every 90 days if you are case free and the COs can be bothered to get you to an office phone and your loved ones happen to be in at the time) is detrimental to children's relationships with their incarcerated parents.

Inmates wouldnt be able to call fellow inmates. Like you said, limit it to 3 numbers per inmate, make sure those are also people on the visitation list or at the Warden's discretion, and use it as a privilage not a right. Surely it would make COs jobs easier if they didnt have to field calls all day from stressed families trying to understand how the system is punishing them for their loved one's behaviour?

We're not asking for inmates to be given cell phones, just a normal phone, regulated by existing computer software, with a collect call rate similar to the county jails (roughly $4 for 15 minutes for those who have local numbers) and the ability again at the warden's discretion for the inmate to call out of state and overseas, OR for inmates to have credit cards with so many minutes per month like they do in Federal prisons (which I think would work better for the families, as they would in theory be pre-paying for the calls).

Anonymous said...

There may be other incentives at play here. TDCJ may not want inmates' families to be better informed, since it would make them more effective advocates on their family member's behalf. Plus, giving phone access might allow more reports of actual (i.e., hideoous) prison conditions getting out, and TDCJ doesn't want that.

Anonymous said...

Who is running the "corrupt" system? The offenders!! They have been sent to prison because they could not abide by the rules we set forth!! Dallas laid off a multitude of school teachers, have you heard about prisoners getting less medical, less dental, less food to save thousands upon thousands of $$ yearly? I haven't!! The system does not work!! Try working at a prison and constantly being stressed because the offenders have the rights, not the employees. It is a very negative atmosphere inside those barb wired fences. Again, these people chose their lifestyle and must learn to conform to rules. When the justice system truly is a justice system, problems like cell phones and contraband will be diminished!!