COMMUNICATION SHAKEDOWN

MCI WorldCom and the state are raking in windfall profits from the captive customers in Missouri's prisons

Under mounting attacks from prison reformers and state legislators, Missouri officials earlier this year negotiated a revised deal with MCI, choosing to cap the state's commissions at $790,625 a month in return for the long-distance carrier's reducing its prison-pay-phone rates to 30 cents a minute.

Despite this ameliorating step, the families of Missouri prisoners are still paying many times more than average consumers are charged to make direct calls to comparable destinations. It is a predicament they share with others around the country. With the growth of prison populations nationwide, the prison-pay-phone business has become a billion-dollar enterprise, spurring telephone companies to strike deals not only with state penitentiaries but with municipal and county jails, too.

MCI says its inflated rates are justified because of the added expense of providing telephone service to prisons, including security systems that monitor and record calls to ensure that inmates are not conspiring to commit telephone fraud or other crimes. "Rates are based on the cost of providing the service to the state," says Greg Blankenship, a spokesman for MCI in McLean, Va. "I might also point out that the rates charged for inmate calls are competitive with operator-assisted collect calls paid by consumers at the corner pay phone."

But Missouri Sen. Wayne Goode (D-St. Louis County) remains unconvinced by this explanation. In a March 24 letter to DOC director Dora Schriro, Goode expressed appreciation for the department's decision to reduce its prison-pay-phone rates but added a note of concern. "For the most part," Goode wrote, "inmate families are generally not very well off financially. In all cases, they are a "captive audience,' as there is no other choice available for verbal communication. It has long been my view that we should provide telephone service at the lowest possible cost and the state should not be trying to make a profit.... I pay less than 10 cents a minute for both intra and interstate service 24 hours a day, seven days a week and this price is available to any consumer. The state has very competitive contracts for inter and intrastate long distance ... used ... in the normal course of business. I fail to understand why the state cannot through the same competitive bid/negotiation process obtain similar rates for inmate telephone services."

Thanks to the state's Hancock Amendment, which caps the total revenue the state gets, affluent taxpayers may receive refunds from the same general-revenue fund to which impoverished inmates' families are contributing millions of dollars, Goode says.

With the DOC budget topping $500 million in the current fiscal year, the case can be made that Missouri should be making every effort to recoup the high cost of incarcerating its more than 25,000 criminal offenders. Goode, however, rejects that idea: "I don't buy that argument at all," he says. On the rare occasion when an inmate enters the penal system with assets, the state already possesses the authority to charge that individual room and board, says Goode. The prisoner-pay-phone situation is different in that it penalizes the inmate's family. Often, says Goode, the person saddled with the prison-pay-phone bill is the poor mother of an inmate.

Goode, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, says he intends to work on changing the way the state handles its prison-pay-phone contract in the next year. His view on the issue is shared by conservative Missouri Sen. Larry Rohrbach (R-California), who in the last legislative session sponsored a failed bill that would have prohibited the state from profiting from its prison-pay-phone contract. Another ill-fated bill, sponsored by Rep. Charles Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis), would have allocated the state's share of the profits to prison education programs.

With the Legislature in recess, Jefferson City drowses in the summer. At midmorning, outside the Truman Office Building, state employees linger in the shade, smoking cigarettes. It is a routine work day in Room 580 of the Office of Administration's Division of Purchasing — where details of the state's business relationship with MCI are buried in more than 700 pages of contract materials. Beth Jackson's complaints are part of this massive file.

Jackson lives in Jefferson City, on East Miller Street, in a modest ranch-style home. She recently married Ray Young, an inmate at the Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC). Because of her proximity to the prison, she now pays a flat rate of $1.30 each time she accepts a call from her husband. Before his transfer, however, she shared the same financial burden that Logan still endures. In April, Jackson (who filed her complaints as "Beth Jackson" but now goes by her married name of Young) was forced to confront MCI and the state of Missouri's bureaucracies after she was wrongly charged for more than $1,000 in collect calls from JCCC. The phone company rectified its error, but that hasn't lessened Young's sense of mistrust.

"The premise of the DOC is that they want lots of family involvement," says Young. "But the majority of inmates' families can't afford these kinds of phone calls. I've talked to the Office of Administration. I've talked to the DOC. I've talked to MCI. They all say that it's the other one who determines what the rates are. What I've been told was that MCI has to make money off of this. There's no doubt about that. That's what they're in the business to do."

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