COMMUNICATION SHAKEDOWN

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

Young finds the state's acceptance of what she calls a "kickback" more questionable, however.

Aside from the financial difficulties it creates, she says the high cost of prison telephone service works against rehabilitation and contributes to the high rate of recidivism. At the same time, ignorance and public apathy inhibit the possibility of change, she says. The penal system is "its own little world," says Young. "It's very difficult to penetrate into that. Even if you do, who are you going to tell? Who gives a damn? It's just like if you have cancer. The reality is, unless you have somebody in prison, you don't want to know about it."

By contrast, MCI and the state of Missouri know a great deal about their captive market and have shared this knowledge with each other since the telephone company began providing service for the DOC in 1989. It has been a mutually rewarding arrangement.

When the current contract came up for renewal in 1995, a MCI manager in St. Louis sent a letter to the Division of Purchasing in Jefferson City, emphasizing the financial incentive for the state's approval of MCI's offer. "To ensure our continued business relationship," wrote Steve Viefhaus, "MCI is ready to pay the Missouri Department of Corrections the highest commissions it has ever offered to any other state corrections department."

To further support its pitch, MCI submitted summaries from each Missouri correctional facility. The data included the number of collect calls placed, the total minutes logged and the revenue accrued. At Algoa, for example, prisoners made 15,807 collect calls to parties in other parts of Missouri in May 1994. The log indicates that during the one-month period, Algoa inmates collectively spent 265,688 minutes talking on the phone, translating into $88,536.26 in revenue.

The subsequent deregulation of the industry by the Telecommunications Act of 1995, along with the increasing prison population, made the prison-pay-phone business all the more lucrative. The DOC predicts the prison population will soon grow to more than 27,000, with two new correctional facilities scheduled to open in the near future. Meanwhile, MCI estimates that every inmate in the state's prisons already places more than $60 worth of collect calls each month.

This means that even with its self-imposed cap, the state is still eligible for more than $10 million in commissions over the course of the next year, because its touted rate reduction is offset by the $1 million bonus it receives for renewing the contract with MCI.

For the last two years, the Missouri Legislature has passed bills that would have aided the church-sponsored transportation service. Last year, state lawmakers allocated $150,000, this year $100,000. In each instance, Gov. Mel Carnahan has used his line-item-veto power to delete the funding from the DOC's budget. Attempts to reach the governor's office were unsuccessful.

State Sen. Walt Mueller (R-St. Louis County), who sponsored the bills and serves on the Senate corrections committee, doesn't understand how the state can continue to rake in millions of dollars through its prison-pay-phone contract and not earmark any of the money for prison programs. "I believe that if there was some use of this money that was going back into the prison system, some kind of benefit that was coming out of it, then I could see where it might have some reason for being," he says. "But by itself, I don't think the state is in any kind of position to make any money on anything. It's there to provide services, not make a profit."

The objective, says Mueller, should be to reduce the number of prisoners, not make money off them. "Our biggest problem is the number of beds we have to have. It costs $17,000-$22,000 a year for every prisoner. In my opinion, the best life they can have is with the encouragement of their family. If that connection is lost (while) in prison, when they come out they have no place to go. So if we can develop this communication with prisoners and their families, I feel there will be an automatic reduction in recidivism."

The Rev. Ted Schroeder, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, has worked for years with prisoners' families and provides transportation so they can visit the inmates. "I believe that the state's receipt of any significant amount of money from telephone revenue is just plain immoral," he says. "I'm ashamed that my state has been doing this. The money we do get should only go to rehabilitate the inmate."

At her Norfolk Avenue residence, Janet Logan interrupts a discussion of her telephone woes to answer a call from her husband. The living room of the shotgun flat is crowded with a bumper-pool table. Logan's mother squeezes through in a wheelchair, followed by an old dog. One of Logan's four adolescent sons from a previous marriage wanders into the nearby kitchen. Outside, the morning sun has risen over Adams School and is slanting onto the porch, where Marvin's two rubber trees grow next to a front door augmented with bars.

Before hanging up, Logan asks her husband whether he wants to talk to a reporter. "He don't want to talk to you," she says later. "He knows we're being recorded. He's afraid if he says anything, he'll be punished."

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