As Virginia copes with its biggest budget crunch in half a century, it is earning more than $6 million dollars from phone calls made to and from its 30,000 prison inmates. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports that thanks to an exclusive contract, MCI Worldcom handles all calls placed by state prisoners. The only kind of calls they are allowed to make are expensive, operator-assisted collect calls.
Virginia pockets a 40 percent commission on those calls, which since 1998 has totaled more than $41.5 million.
Prisoner advocates have persuaded a state lawmaker to try changing the system. “Families are being gouged,” said Jean Auldridge, director of the inmate advocacy group Virginia CURE, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. “Even middle-class families find it difficult to pay these exorbitant rates, and it's almost impossible for lower-income families to maintain telephone contact with their loved ones.”
Delegate Adam Ebbin has introduced a bill that would direct prisons to offer inmates a debit system under which they could make cheaper, direct-dialed calls to their children and pay for them out of prepaid accounts. Such systems are offered by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and several states. Federal inmates pay 20 cents a minute for a long-distance call, with no surcharges. Recipients of Virginia inmate calls pay as much as 45 cents per minute for long-distance calls plus a surcharge of up to $2.45 per call At those rates, a 15-minute call, the maximum allowed, costs $9.20.
Larry Traylor, a corrections spokesman, said the department recognizes the importance of regular inmate contact with families. He defended the telephone system, which includes “numerous security features to inhibit the ability of inmates to conduct illegal activities and unwanted calls outside of the facility.”