POLITICS

Texas INMATE Phone System Debuts: The "Cell" Phone

Texas prison inmates are making routine phone calls for the first time.

The Texas prison board was told Friday the first of a planned systemwide program of telephone service to be available to most inmates began working this week at the Henley State Jail in Dayton, east of Houston. The system is being phased in this year throughout the 112 units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the nation's second-largest corrections agency.

Under terms of a contract with a Kansas telecommunications firm, the country's most restrictive telephone policy for state prisoners is ending for an estimated 120,000 inmates who will be allowed up 120 minutes of prepaid and collect calls each month.

Three more prisons -- Vance, in Fort Bend County; Luther, in Grimes County; and Hobby, in Falls County -- are to have phone service next week and should be among 13 brought up in April.

Another 31 become active in May and the entire system should be up by the end of September, said Paul Cooper, director and general manager of corrections markets for Embarq Corp., the Overland Park, Kan.-based company that last year was awarded a seven-year contract with the Texas prison agency.

Texas is the last state to bar routine phone access for inmates. Most Texas prisoners now are allowed one five-minute collect call every 90 days, and only with a warden's permission and only with a prison officer present to monitor the call.

The new system will allow inmates up to 15 minutes per call to friends and family on an approved list of visitors. Calls to crime victims or the victims' families will be barred.

Inmates and their families can prepay for telephone calls at rates of about 23 cents a minute for in-state calls and 39 cents for out-of-state calls. Collect calls within Texas will be about 26 cents a minute and 43 cents for outside the state. International calls and calls to cell phone aren't allowed.

Phone privileges won't extend to about 36,000 inmates with disciplinary problems, gang affiliations or those on death row.

A few weeks before the system becomes active at a unit, Embarq makes voice prints of each eligible inmate as a security check for phone access. Cooper said so far 65,000 inmates have enrolled.

"We educate offenders on how the system is going to work so they know and write letters to friends and families," he said.

Friends and relatives of inmates can register on a Web site -- http://www.texasprisonphone.com -- and the company is working on an automated system for people who don't have Internet access, Cooper said.

People on an inmate's visitors list submit a copy of their telephone bill and a copy of their driver's license and their names are verified against the visitors list names.

"There are multiple layers of checks that occur," Cooper said, saying the phone system had security features and "a ton" of investigative capabilities.

"In terms of getting into the system, there are some checks," he said. "They are not perfect."

People who register and are approved are notified by a phone call from the firm.

The new phone privileges come in the wake of a crackdown by the agency on illegal cell phone use. Hundreds of contraband phones, chargers and phone components have been seized in recent months and security has been tightened for those entering and leaving the prisons after a death row inmate last year, using a smuggled phone, made threatening calls to a state senator.

State prison officials long had opposed expanded phone access, fearing inmates could maintain their criminal connections to the outside world. But officials say technology has improved so the calls can be monitored, recorded and limited to those on the list of approved contacts.

State lawmakers in 2007 overwhelmingly approved the measure allowing the project.

Embarq handles state prison telephone contracts in a half dozen states and will keep the first 60 percent of revenues. The remaining money, up to $10 million, will go to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. Proceeds beyond that will be split evenly between the state's general revenue and the victim's fund.

The Legislative Budget Board has estimated annual revenue at about $5.8 million.

Embarq spokesman Tom Matthews said the installation has been a "massive project" made even more challenging at the state's prisons.

"There was no infrastructure anywhere," he said, saying the work involved basic things like stringing wire. "None of the facilities ever had that."

Some corrections experts believe the availability of phone communication allows inmates to keep in regular touch with relatives and that continued phone access can be used as an incentive for a convict to behave. Phones also are seen as a way to ease the financial strain on relatives who want to visit an inmate in a prison far from them.

Approximately one phone is being installed for each 30 inmates, meaning about 4,000 phones will be put in common areas of prisons like day rooms.

Calls to an inmate's lawyer of record, protected under attorney-client privilege, would not be monitored or recorded.