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Friday, April 5, 2013

A New Phone System -- March 16, 2013

Last week, a new phone system was installed at the penitentiary. Securus is basically the same as the prior company which processed inmates' collect calls, but it gives men the ability to set up their own accounts. It is also purportedly cheaper, although I have not as yet been able to verify the cost. The most visible change has been the new smaller handsets which are now in the cell houses for prisoners to use. Inmates were only given a week's notice of the switch in telephone services and many people were initially confused or angry. There is a perception every institutional change is made to the detriment of prisoners. I was not greatly concerned about the new phone system because I have become accustomed to being at the mercy of my captors and the phone was a small issue compared to other injustices or oppressions. If the new system was more expensive or problematic, I would simply cease to use it. I had previously boycotted using the phone for a decade and have few people to call anymore after being incarcerated 20 years. Since Securus has been installed, I have had a couple of minor difficulties placing calls and learned of one new restriction. However, there is generally not much of a difference and I completed my first phone call earlier today.

In late February, a memo was posted on the prison's cable network. I did not notice it until my cellmate brought it to my attention. Channel 17 is typically a blank blue screen and therefore I had deleted it. The fewer channels I have, the quicker I can discern what is on television or turn to a specific station. Remote controls are not allowed in prison and the cheap plastic channel buttons on my TV are close to breaking. Therefore I only programmed the 15 channels I watch most frequently and channel 17 is not one of them.

The memorandum to prisoners found on channel 17 was very vague and left most people confused. It basically said a new phone system was going to be used, but was very short on details. What little description and instructions given were also not articulated well. Immediately, my cellmate began to speculate what it meant and he was not happy. Other prisoners who I overheard talking about the memo also advanced their interpretations. Over the years, changes in the IDOC have predominantly been made to increase control and make inmates' lives more miserable. It was no surprise the majority of prisoners thought negatively of the new phone service. Although the memo said the change was meant to "modernize" the current system, the word was not well received and apparently brought with it the same connotations I associate with the U.S. president's use of "forward" during his reelection campaign. The company's name "Securus" which was obviously associated with the word security did not help with prisoners' perceptions.

Personally, I did not draw any conclusions from the memorandum. A customer service phone number was given and I wrote this down. In a letter to my parents, I told them to call and find out more information. Prisoners were unable to call themselves despite it being a free 800 number. All phone numbers must gain approval before being called. A call will not even go through unless the number has been approved and processed into the system. Prisoners must fill out a form which includes not only the phone number, but the name of the person, their address, age, race, and relationship. At Stateville, it can take a few weeks to have a new phone number added.

The current phone system was already highly controlled and monitored. When I read the memo, I was not certain how the prison administration could make it more secure. Inmates not only had to submit phone numbers and various information about the owner for approval, but they were given a three digit PIN to add to their institutional number when placing calls. Prisoner Identification Numbers were used by Internal Affairs to identify inmates. All calls were recorded and kept forever in a data base which security personnel could review at any time. The data base is organized by caller, time, date and various other ways to efficiently assist those using it. A prisoner told me they even have a special recording system which is used when certain key words are said. I know N.S.A. has such a filter to monitor calls and texts going in and out of the U.S., however, I tend to believe IDOC does not nor has a use for it.

The current phone system also is able to cut off the phone privileges of prisoners. Inmates who are punished with segregation may not only have very limited access to the phone but their access cut off altogether. Incarcerated men are prohibited from allowing others to use their PIN and can be held responsible for its misuse by others. I have never heard of anyone ever getting punished for putting another inmate on the line to talk with someone they had called, but I have heard of disciplinary action taken for making 3-way calls for another person.

The PIN system was put in place in the late 1990s. Prisoners despised having to submit a list of numbers to be approved and the lack of anonymity. Before, prisoners could call anyone they wanted and as many people as they wanted without restriction. Phone calls were always monitored, but they were not recorded in connection with a specific person. They also did not automatically disconnect after a half hour and therefore force a person to place yet another collect call with its large acceptance fee if they wanted to talk longer. Inmates at the prison I was at previously came together and vowed to boycott the new phone system. However, after a period of time, inmates caved in and began to use the phone when it became apparent the administration did not care. Despite this, I continued to refuse to use the new system and a decade passed before I did.

When a person is arrested, they typically have a number of friends and family to talk with. However, when sentenced to indefinite incarceration and years pass by, there are fewer and fewer people who you want to talk with or who want to talk to you. I have never been a social person and the boycott was not a major sacrifice for me. In fact, it was good to put people outside the wall behind me. My future was in prison and I had little faith in my appeals despite how unjust my conviction was. There is a lot of anguish trying to keep relationships intact from inside a prison and I have seen many men greatly upset that these crumble away with time. Prisoners are powerless to keep even bonds with their wives or children from dissolving.

What finally made me use the phone again was that I had been writing a woman for a couple of years. She was in an Indiana prison for a D.U.I. conviction. I had gotten her address from a penpal list another prisoner had and was going to throw out. He was furious that he paid money for a list of women who were incarcerated like him. I thought contrarily that it was great because I did not have to worry about them having sex with other men and they would be similarly situated. However, I wrote Krista pretending to be a free man. As our relationship progressed, I became increasingly bothered that eventually my fantasy would be shattered when she was released. In fact, I was sad I could not pick her up from the gates of the prison. I owed her an explanation and thus collected all the most terrible newspaper clippings I could find about my arrest and conviction and sent them to her. I thought she would never want to have anything to do with me again but oddly she told me her feelings had not changed. I knew the relationship was not going to work out but I promised I would call. Possibly, she thought it would be harder for me to say goodbye over the phone or maybe she just wanted to know what my voice sounded like. Regardless, that was the first time I used the phone in about 10 years and the last time I ever had any communication with Krista.

On March 7th, the new phone system was installed at Stateville. A guard announced over the loudspeaker the phones would probably be inoperable for the day. Since the memo was posted on the TV, a few inmates had gotten ahold of a written description of the changes. They were not passed out, but apparently posted at some job assignment areas. My cellmate had been given a copy which I read. The written memorandum was more detailed and from it I got the impression there was little distinction between the new and the old systems. Apparently, Securus allowed prisoners to prepay their accounts and this way those they called would not be charged. This was appealing to me because I recall a time a woman regularly wanted me to call her and it bothered me immensely that she had to pay for my collect calls. I sent her $100 through my trust fund account, although she was reluctant to accept it. Securus is also different in that it seems to allow people who accept the collect calls to be billed by their phone company or theirs. I am not certain to this day whether Securus just passes their bill to the called party's telephone company or if there is a different rate. Securus says they charge $4.10 a call. It does not mention local or long distance rates and I got the impression it did not matter. The $4.10 charge is also the same flat fee whether you speak one minute or the full half hour. This is a better price than the other phone service which had varying rates for weekends and weekdays, day or night, as well as for the time you spent connected. A local call on the cheapest time and day of the week formerly cost $4 for one minute graduating to $5.25 for 30 minutes, plus several kinds of taxes.

After I made the call to Krista, I did not use the phone again for a long time. It was odd talking into the plastic receiver and I had little to say or people to say anything to. Eventually though, I met another woman who wanted to talk to me and considering she lived in Europe she was not able to visit often. This relationship, however, was doomed like all the others. I was in prison for the rest of my life. How many women are willing to be faithful to a man in prison? How long until they lose interest or the division causes too much grief? Now, I will only call my parents or sister occasionally. Once in a great while I will call a relative or my attorney.

Last Saturday, I called home and was concerned when no one answered. I called several times during the day and usually my parents will pick up. Due to their ages and health problems, I wondered if one was in the hospital or worse, the morgue. I had not spoken to or seen anyone in my family for a few weeks and did not know what to make of the unaccepted calls. The phone service's recorded message said the calls went through but no buttons were pressed suggesting an answering machine or voice mail. It was not until this week that I learned my parents intentionally did not pick up because the new phone system identifies the call as coming from an 800 number. Apparently, this means a telemarketer or salesman is calling and they do not bother answering the phone. Eventually, they checked their answering machine messages and heard the recording from Securus and knew it had been me calling, but by then it was too late.

When I made my first call, the phone system records your name to repeat it to the person who answers the phone. I was misinformed by another prisoner that for each call the service will ask for your name. To prevent inmates from saying quick messages and not their names, however, I was only asked once. Now, whoever I call will just hear "Paul," and not my full name as before. No one in my family knows anyone in prison but me, but if I were to call my lawyer or someone else in the future, they may not know who I am. Thus, I asked my counselor if the new phone system's recording could be reset so I could say my complete name. She did not know nor did she care to find out. Apparently, I will have to contact Securus myself.

When I returned from my visit on Wednesday, a prisoner whose bars I went to while waiting to be locked in my cell told me to look at the new phones. I do not know if the IDOC, the inmate trust fund, or the new phone service provided them but inside the cell houses there are now black handset telephones. They do not have any unique features from the previous phones, but they are much more convenient to move and use than the large desk top phones. Often those phones would be broken by inmates dropping them. The handset phones can be passed through the cell bars easier and although they are also made of cheap thin plastic, they seem to be less prone to damage.

The main problem with these phones is that the cords are regularly shorting out. Long cords connect the phone to a few outlets in the ceiling of the gallery. A phone is regularly moved back and forth on the long gallery of cells. The wires become tangled, stepped on, ripped out, and twisted. Considering how many cords are broken and need to be replaced, it may have been worth the extra expense to provide the cell houses with cordless phones. This would certainly have been modernizing the phone system. I do not know how many people in 2013 still use phones with cords. It seems everyone but my parents use cell phones.

One of the extra security abilities of the new phone system is it immediately disconnects people who use the 3-way calling feature. Even if the person the prisoner calls switches over to another call momentarily, the call will be abruptly ended. Security personnel were probably interested in such a new phone service to control calls. Now there is no possibility an inmate can call someone who is not on their approved list, even with the assistance of the person they called. I do not have to ask to know that a lot of men are unhappy about this. It was nice for inmates to be able to connect with others without having to call them collect or go through the process of approval. I do not know if Securus has the capacity or permits calls to other countries, but the last one did not. In order to speak to someone in Europe I had to use 3-way or call forwarding. A large proportion of inmates in Illinois prisons are Mexican and have family or friends in Mexico. Apparently they will not be speaking to them any more.

Earlier today, I called home again and this time got through. I spoke to both my mother and father. They seemed pleased to hear from me and I made two 30-minute calls. I was informed they were going to visit me next week so long as their health holds up. I do not know how many more years they will be alive and it is nice to have the ability to keep in touch. Unfortunately, I cannot do this from beyond these prison walls.