Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Prisoners access to phones may expand

Two bills expanding pay phone access for Texas prison inmates (discussed previously here) are moving expeditiously through the legislative process. El Paso Republican Pat Haggerty has HB 1888 up on the House floor today, while its companion SB 1580 by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte is on the local and uncontested calendar in that chamber tomorrow. As described previously:
The bill would require TDCJ to put out a request for bids to give prisoners phone access with restricted approved call lists, monitoring of calls (except those with an inmate's attorney), extensive data gathering, and use of biometric identifiers for access. It would require the winning vendor to install and maintain at least one phone for every 30 inmates in each unit.
See the House Research Organization's bill analysis for more.

I favor this bill and I hope it passes, but there's one troubling aspect that in the future must likely be addressed. I'm all for improving prisoner phone access for a variety of reasons, and I also favor victim compensation as an integral part of the justice process. But this legislation anticipates $15 million per year in profits from the phone system from collect calls will go to Texas' crime victim compensation fund.

Here's the rub: The policy punishes the wrong people. That money comes from families, not offenders! And $15 million is a lot of scratch - it's likely that requirement significantly increases the cost of collect calls from prison, improperly in my view. Increasing phone access strengthens family ties, reduces recidivism, and improves inmate behavior - extra costs only thwart those more important policy goals. Victim compensation is great, but offenders should be the ones who compensate them, not their loved ones who did nothing wrong.

Don't get me wrong - politics is the art of compromise and that objection isn't enough to cause me to oppose the bill. But it's an example of an all too common approach that views the criminal justice system as a revenue source instead of pursuing rehabilitation goals. Somehow, someday, we must move away from that mentality.

UPDATE: This bill was postponed until Tuesday, May 1 - time to contact your state representative if you support HB 1888 to ask them to vote for it.


billt said...

It's past time for inmates to have phone access, but you're right, Scott about the money coming from the inmate's families...the cost for the phone calls should be reasonable, not a punishment for the families. I hope the bill passes so inmates can stay in touch with their families. It's so very important for an inmate to have connections to the free world.

Omaha Corrections Guy said...

I can see the reason for your hesitation is supporting this concept - your reasons are noble.


Many inmates are not the sole individual in their social circle who have procured their funds through nefarious means. Often the family is putting money on inmate's books that came from that inmate's illegal activities.

Is there some way of identifying the source of the funding? I don't want to see Bob the inmate unable to get his phone time, but at the same time I want to drain Evil Bert the drug dealer inmate of his ill-gotten funds.

Love your blog.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Omaha Corrections: This bill lets TDCJ have an approved caller list of just a few people that presumably would exclude felons, known criminal associates, etc.

From what I understand, the crooks calling a drug dealer on the outside just pay $500 and purchase a cell phone - hundreds have been confiscated across TDCJ. The ones making collect calls are more often calling their family or their lawyer. Half of male inmates and 2/3 of women have kids, eg., so that's where a lot of the volume comes from. best,

Anonymous said...

Law enforcement and corrections has become a cash cow. Traffic tickets are a prime example. The fines have gotten totally out of control. More $$$ for the local politicians to spend on things we don’t need!

As for the TDCJ inmates, we are teaching them if you have power over another human being, you squeeze them for all you can! Rehabilitation at its best in Texas!

No matter what the inmate does that is unethical we must set the standard of what is right. When we do unethical things to inmates it validates their antisocial behavior.

We as a society must decide what we want to teach those who come behind us. When we treat the lowest in our society badly this is what we are teaching our children. This is a much bigger picture than just inmates in TDCJ. This is how the sins of one generation are visited on the next generation!

Anthony Mikulastik

Anonymous said...

When was the decision made that criminal justice should maintain a balanced budget? From city commissions and county commissions to the legislature, prosecutors are pressed to "raise enough money" to cover the cost of judges, juries, court reporters and their own offices.

The balancing act between the mandate of those who hold the purse strings and the "do justice" order from the Constitution gets pretty tricky....

Anonymous said...

Omaha corrections guy. Your idea that these phone bills will be paid from ill gotten money is pretty silly. I can assure you that the vast majority of crimes do not involve the kind of money that would allow the criminal's loved ones to pay for collect calls.

There are bad guys in prison and their behavior is made worse by prison culture. Someday they will be released and anything that improves their chance to avoid a return trip is good.

Perhaps your profession blinds you to the good in people and society.

Anonymous said...

omaha corrections guy ~ if you would like to see my wage slips, and my mother in laws pension statements, I'm sure it can be arranged: we are the only people putting money in my hubby's trust fund, and I work 37 hours a week to keep him in stationary and vitamins.

I understand your concerns that somehow money from illicit means would be used to pay for collect calls by some families, but it's the same money that a lot of them are feeding their kids with becuase the main bread-winner is incarcerated (I'm not condoning it, just presenting it to you).

Families already have almost as many restrictions placed on them by TDCJ as the inmates themselves, and any move to look into thier private means of income really would be overstepping the mark. I'm already told what I can or cannot wear, how long I can touch my hubby and where, and constantly live with the very real threat that visits or letters could be suspended or even stopped completely if I dont comply with rules that so far I have yet to be provided a written copy of by the warden (which I requested because the Ombudsman only has the basic rules, to which a Warden may add whatever he choses, but it would seem he doesnt have to get them agreed by anyone or even display a copy anywhere).

My hubby has to be where he is, we've never denied that and I dont complain about it. But I absolutely resent the implication that just because I support him, I am in some way a criminal myself.

Phone access for inmates is a sensible way for TDCJ to help families stay connected. It makes a lot more sense than giving an inmate an extra 40 years for having a cell phone (which would be impossible for a family member to mail in or to take into a visit, so look elsewhere).

Anonymous said...

TYC should smart and take a page out of the adult systems book. Your staff have problems bringing in contraband to inmates, change the law that lets them have smoking back and more phones. Then the co's don't have to smuggle in tobacco and cell phones