Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Note to Kevin Krause: You buried your lede on collect call profiteering

The Dallas Morning News' Kevin Krause is a fine reporter, I've found, with this caveat - you should usually read his reporting from the bottom up.

In journalism there's a phrase, "burying your lede," which means that the sentence which should have been the main attention grabber is "buried" somewhere in the dense body of a story. Kevin does that so routinely I've often found myself hoping his editors don't ever cut for length by hacking off at the bottom.

In his article this morning ("County studies costly collect calls from jail," Jan. 24), Krause reports that county commissioners are considering reducing costs of collect calls from inmates. Later we find that it's come up because AT&T demanded the county reduce it's commission. Then the final parapgraph of the sentence gave the most critical information in the story:
Brad Lollar, the county's chief public defender, said his office does not accept collect calls because it's too expensive. He said it's not easy for lawyers to reach their clients in jail.
In other words, profiteering off collect calls directly reduces clients' access to their court-appointed counsel in Dallas, even in the public defender's office. One county agency (the jail) can't call another (the public defender) because of a contract with a private company that would demand the PD pay more than $4 per call!

That's pretty outrageous, don't you think? What's worse, it's sickeningly common. Even AT&T thinks it's too much. They're demanding that the county reduce its commission from 55% to 25% when the current contract ends in April. AT&T says it will cut the cost to $2 per call if the county foregoes a commission.

But even that's not the whole story, or it shouldn't be: I see no justification for AT&T's commission for local calls, ESPECIALLY if the county is going to give up its commission, anyway. If the county decides to forego a commission, they should just get rid of collect local calls. (At a minimum, they should demand that any new contract allow inmates free calls to the PD or their private attorneys. In Austin there's a "free call" list of lawyers who can receive non-collect calls from their clients in jail.)

I've argued before that there's nothing wrong with giving offenders greater access to phone service. Especially when it's used as a privilege that can be revoked, it even increases jail safety, gives incentives for improved inmate behavior, and may even reduce guard corruption. But the odious economics of jail phone calls, which bleed profit from already-strained families of offenders, are reason enough to overturn the system.

My unsolicited advice to Sheriff Lupe Valdez and the Dallas County Commissioners: Ditch the collect call scheme for local calls entirely and let's everybody - both the county and the phone company - stop mulcting families of inmates for the privilege keeping in touch with their loved ones.

And my unsolicited writing advice to Krause (and his editor): When you finish your stories, be sure to always look carefully at the last sentence. Frequently it should be the first one.

UPDATE: See more on the Dallas Commissioners Court discussing jail problems, this time healthcare deficiencies, at DallasBlog.


rothmatisseko said...

Collect for local calls? That is outrageous -- if the prison already has land lines there should be no reason to charge. Unless maybe it's that AT&T mans the prison's telephone surveillance...

Anonymous said...

My husband just went to tdcj from county. The phone service there is laughable. In order for him to call me, I had to get a pre-paid account with a credit card, send him the pin number and hope the phones were working. On some days they didn't even turn on the phones until 4 ot 5 pm. they said they have court on those days. and won't turn them on for that reason. the calls ended being 6.75 for 15 min. That included 3.75 connect fee. and .40 a min there after. AT&t put a block on my phone. I had to call them to get it removed. When he called 4 times collect, they put the block back on the phone. Tdcj doesn't have phones in the units for the offenders to use. If they are good, and if their sentence allows it they can call collect home for 5 min. That's once every 90 days.