Connecting to the Outside World

By 2010 or so, Steve and I were talking on the phone at least once a week, sometimes twice; long rambling talks about anything and everything (books, music, politics, religion, his circumstances, the law, television, and anything else that happened to surface), although we always discussed some aspect of his case, and that was usually our primary focus. To just talk about the possibility of him being released, and dwell on that to the exclusion of everything else (especially considering how remote the possibility was) was too difficult. Every nineteen minutes a recorded voice would say, “You have one minute left.” We would try to wrap up our conversation, but in the last few seconds Steve would usually say, “I’ll call you back.” At the end of three or four of these, we would stop, not always because we were talked out, but because of the cost.

Steve can’t receive phone calls, he has to make them. In order to make those calls, Steve has to have money saved to his phone call account with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). If the money isn’t in his account, he can’t place the call. Once a call is connected, his phone account is debited 23.4 cents per minute. Each of our twenty minute calls was costing Steve $4.68. Three calls in a row reduces the amount on his books by $14.04. It doesn’t take long to burn through a hundred dollars that way, and I wasn’t the only person he was calling. He talked to his son and daughter often, and to other family members and friends.

Phone calls and letters are an inmate’s only link with the outside world aside from face-to-face visits. Inmates can only have ten people on their visitors list at a time, and getting on the list is time consuming and sometimes complicated. Some of the complications happen because of arcane policies in the TDCJ. Our step-brother submitted an original marriage license for our mom and his father to show he was related to Steve. The prison wouldn’t give it back. They said, “This is now the property of TDCJ.” It took Steve several years to get them to change Marri’s status from sister to daughter. Someone apparently mixed up our sister, Maritia, with Marri, and listed Marri as his sister. They were still letting Marri visit, but it finally took  the intervention of the warden to get it corrected.

Phone calls are the only connection to the outside world that inmates have, aside from letters and visits (and, of course, television and reading materials). Sometimes a phone call or a visit is the best way to remind them they’re a human being, the only thing that keeps them sane, but the cost is tremendous. In addition to the amount per minute, there are taxes and charges that are also added when money is placed in his account, and are charged to the person making the deposits.

The company who manages the phone system, Securus, has periodically made attempts to get in-person visits in Texas prisons banned so family and friends would be forced to use their video visitation services [they are still trying to do that in 2020], which is, naturally, much more expensive than the phone calls, around a dollar a minute plus “administration fees.” At one point they made a big push to try to get jails and prisons to sign on to their services, but their contracts included language which would ban in-person visits if the video service was available. Fortunately, most of the prisons (usually after massive protests) rejected those services under those conditions.

Even so, the rates just for phone use can be exorbitant. Additional charges are added on to the amount deposited. For example, if I deposit $100 into Steve’s phone account through Securus, they add $13.25 for taxes and administrative fees ($21.50 for $200). If I cut out the middleman, I can put $300 directly into Steve’s TDCJ account. They also charge an administrative fee, but it’s $9.25, four dollars less than Securus charges for a $100 phone credit. Once it’s in his TDCJ account, Steve can buy phone time from the prison’s commissary. They charge tax too, but the total is still far less than what Securus charges.

Note: This post appeared on an earlier version of this site when the rates above were accurate. Now, thanks to outside pressure and several lawsuits, the rates for phone calls are only six cents per minute, allowing for much longer phone calls for far less money.

What do inmates do who don’t have any support from the outside? How do they communicate with loved ones? I’d be interested to hear what you think. I’ll say something about books and other entertainment in another blog post.

Michael Sirois

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