Aug/Sep 1998

f r o m   t h e   i n s i d e


with Anthony Lee Brown

Burning Down the Lines

Contrary to the common belief of Alaskan citizens, the education of prisoners in the areas of social responsibilities and skills, family relationships, and the development of spiritual qualities or positive character attributes is not provided by the Department of Corrections (DOC). The strongest positive influences upon the psychological and spiritual development of prisoners comes from communications with those outside the prison walls, such as parents, spouses, children, extended family, friends, etc. The value of visiting and telephone communication to the prisoner's reformation and positive character development, and the healing and nurturing of their family relationships and community ties, is undeniable. Yet, these modes of real-time interactive communication are, at best, minimally facilitated by the DOC, and, at worst, discouraged and needlessly obstructed.

The most recent example of actions and policies crafted to obstruct and discourage healthy communications between prisoners and their families has been the contracting of prisoner telephone services to out-of-state business interests. Rather than replace "worn out" telephone systems, and to obtain this new equipment at no cost, the DOC accepted a bid from Secure Telecom Corporation (STC), of Texas. Under the contract, STC provides hardware and software at minimal rates for administrative use of staff phones, grants the contractor a free hand in billing surcharges and rates for prisoner calls to their families, and provides that the State shall receive a 15% kickback on all telephone calls placed by prisoners.

The free hand in billing the families who receive calls from Alaska's prisoners has lead to rates often more than 400% higher than those previously charged. A special 'surcharge' is also added to the cost of calls: $1.55 on each in-state call and $2.50 on out-of-state calls. Additionally, under the new system, calling arrangements such as the use of personal 1-800 numbers or direct access (a local number that rings at your distant home with fixed long distance fees) are no longer permitted, assuring maximum profit for both Company and State.

Examining the new price of telephone communication, it is easy to see what this means to prisoners and their families. For example, the cost of a 15 minute call from myself, here at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, to my wife at our apartment in Anchorage, under the various calling plans:

a. $3.30 ($0.22/minute) using her previous institution-approved personal 1-800 number on weekends.

b.$1.50 ($0.10/minute) using her 'direct access' number any time of the day.

c.$7.61 ($1.55 + $0.60//1st minute + $0.39/additional minute) using the DOC contractor, Secure Telecom Corp.

It should also be noted that under the new system rates and surcharges are billed the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are no lower rates for holidays, weekends, or off-time usage.

While the new prices are bad enough, the contractor does not provide itemized billing (an extra $5.00/month charge); the billed party must call an 800 number and seek their debit from an automated system, and the company has been seeking deposits, or "advance fees," regardless of past billing/payment history. In my wife's case, the advance demanded by the contractor was $465.00! To add insult to injury, the phone contractor may also dictate how many calls a prisoner may make based upon their cost, and how long those calls shall be if limiting monthly billing is deemed necessary by STC.

What does this all mean? Well, if rich people went to prison I imagine it would mean painless profits for the Texas company and the Alaska legislature. But, the rich rarely walk prison yards and the cost of the DOC's new prisoner and administrative phone system falls squarely on the backs of prisoners' families. Speaking personally, my wife and I are no longer able to make that ten-minute call each morning to consult on family matters and share the past and upcoming events of our days. In fact, we are no longer able to speak together on the phone at this time, because neither I nor my wife, a full-time nursing student, are able to pay the $465.00 deposit or "advance fee" demanded by the DOC's telephone contractor. The weekly conversations with my father and step-mother, who live on a fixed income and who are ill, and with my mother who lives in Kotzebue, may now only happen every month or so. And, because individuals who have 'call forwarding' may no longer receive calls from prisoners, I am not permitted to speak with some other family members, including my 16-year-old step-daughter, without risking disciplinary actions, i.e. phone restriction and segregation.

Institution administrators have warned that future enhancements of the phone program include limiting the telephone numbers that each prisoner will be allowed to call to ten (10), with only three (3) number changes to the registered lists to be permitted at three month intervals. This limitation will not enable me to maintain contact with immediate family, much less extended family, friends or community contacts, though, admittedly, most cannot afford the rates charged by STC.

Complaints to the DOC garner a horror story about some diabolical prisoner in Pennsylvania who used prison telephones to run his drug business out of his federal prison cell for three years. A much worn tale that overlooks the facts that prison guards tape recorded each of those calls and randomly monitored them as well, just as they did, and do, in Alaska's prisons. Does the fault for that incident, involving highly-paid, but negligent, guards and a single greedy dope peddler belong to the families of Alaskan prisoners? Should such negligence be incorporated into policy to justify the obstructive nature of those policies? DOC officials may tout "security" as one of the motivating factors in obtaining the services of STC, but the new system offers no greater protection to the public than that of the previous system, which identified each number called, tape recorded all calls, enabled the monitoring of calls, and facilitated the blocking of individual telephone numbers, or groups of numbers, as may have been deemed necessary.

That this should be of concern to Alaskan's is obvious if they consider the financial costs and human suffering already caused by the DOC's inability or unwillingness to educate or reform the prisoners in their custody. The DOC's failure to stress the importance of education, much less family and community relationships, is probably the greatest contributing factor to the system's abysmal 87% recidivism rate. That's correct, 87%! In real-life terms, that means that nearly 9 out of 10 persons introduced into Alaska's prisons, regardless of the crime committed, will return to prison after their release.

The state of "Correctional" affairs is such that general education, substance abuse, and vocational skills programs take a back seat to the exigencies of over-crowding; life skills and parenting programs are nearly non-existent at Alaska's largest prison; and family counseling is unheard of anywhere in the prison system. Yet, access to family members who may encourage positive development in spite of the lack of reformative programs to guide it, and families who need the healing and unity that may only be had through telephone communication is now being strangled for the sake of a profit for a prison-parasitic business and the State, at the expense of those least able to afford it.

It takes no giant leap in logic to see the relationship between a person's willingness to steal from, or harm, a fellow human being and that person's lack of character and social development. It takes no further leap to understand that a family whose parents fail to communicate and consult will also fail to satisfy their obligations or provide a healthy environment for the development of their own and their children's character and social skills. How much more so for a family that has been fractured by the incarceration of one of its members, whose need for healing may have never been greater, yet whose ability to meet or communicate by telephone has never been more than inhibited or restricted?

The bottom line: Prisoners who return to families with whom they have had minimal communication and opportunities to nurture those relationships during their incarceration are doomed to return to prison, having failed to fulfil their obligations to, or accept the support available from, those relationships. Unfortunately, that return journey to prison will probably occur in the wake of further damage to their own families and to those who make up the community around them.

Few would argue the necessity of prisons. The community is best protected when those who would harm its members are isolated, but unless that isolation is interminable, it only serves the intended goal if it is imposed to the least extent and for as short a time as is absolutely necessary, so that those who suffer its imposition are not bent and twisted into conformity with a social reality this is so artificial and distant from that of the community and families they shall return to as to make them incapable of functioning successfully. The total isolation of prisoners from family and community was tried in the earliest days of the developing penitentiary system commonly used in this country today. It not only failed to provide any portion of a solution to resolving the crime program, but it led to the assimilation and concealment of widespread abuses and degrading practices of prison officials and guards and the further debasement and dehumanizing of prisoners.

That Alaska has an 87% recidivism rate is entirely because its politicians have failed to financially support, and mandate that prison officials establish, programs that educate prisoners as to their familial and community responsibilities and obligations, cultivate positive character attributes, and develop social and vocational skills necessary to maintaining non-criminal lifestyles. There are models of successful, on-going reformational systems to investigate and adapt to our community's needs( i.e., Delancy Street Project in San Francisco, CA, and others). However, until our legislators and prison officials begin working to solve the problems, rather than exacerbating and using the problem for their own ends, we can expect our prisons to continue to disappoint, recidivism to remain high, and our families and communities to continue suffering. Proof of these predictions is presently seen in our legislator's annual cry for 'tougher crime laws' and the Department of Corrections; demand for more and bigger prisons - in spite of continuously declining crime statistics.

The contract with Secure Telecom Corporation and the accompanying DOC policies that serve to isolate and divide prisoners from their families by further restricting and inhibiting healthy communications, especially for the sake of material gain and economic profit, are as evil as the acts which made those same prisoners and families subject to them - and those who propagate such isolation and division are as villainous as those they incarcerate.


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