I got a phone call from a caller ID-blocked number yesterday. When I picked up, it was a recorded message from T-Netix, telling me that an inmate (my younger brother) at Correctional Institution X wanted to get in touch with me, and in order to allow that to happen, I’d have to set up an account. The message gave me a toll-free number (1-888-221-5671, if you’re interested) at which I could set up an account. In the past, my brother has always been able to get in touch with me via AT&T or Verizon collect calls, which charged a special extortionate prison rate, something around ninety cents per minute, so I was initially hopeful: I thought that maybe the Maryland Division of Corrections had finally decided to treat prisoners’ families like human beings.
Upon calling the T-Netix number (“The nation’s largers provider of corrections industry related telecommunications services”), I discovered that I was sorely mistaken.
I spent a good forty minutes in voicemail hell, with poorly described menu options and nearly inaudible descriptions: apparently, T-Netix isn’t interested in making things easy. When I finally got a live person, there was no explanation of the company or its services given, no mention of how much calls might cost or how any of it worked. She just wanted my data: name, phone number, billing address, inmate’s name and facility. Then she dropped the bomb: she wanted my social security number, without which I could not set up an account. Mind you, she hadn’t identified herself or her company, and the voicemail system gave no contact information (like a physical address) for T-Netix. Far as I’m concerned, if you give your social security number out over the phone to someone you don’t know and have no contact information for, you’re a fool, and you’re setting yourself up for identity theft. Absolutely not, I told her. I mean, my phone company doesn’t even ask for my social security number. She was steadfast; the only way they can set up an account for an inmate to contact you is with a social security number, so they can run a credit check on you.
In other words, in the state of Maryland, which has contracted its prison communications to T-Netix, voice communication with an inmate requires a credit check.
There’s so much wrong with this, I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, Maryland — by giving a contract to T-Netix — has rhetorically criminalized anyone who even wants to talk to an inmate in the DOC system by placing them under surveillance. For another thing, this makes it much more difficult — or, more properly, practically impossible — for an inmate to call an outside law enforcement agency, a congressional representative, or a reporter. And Maryland (as well as many other states) have instigated this public evisceration of inmates’ and families’ rights for the sake of private profit: a private corporation (check out the heavy-duty shareholder orientation of the T-Netix website) makes profits and actually tries to move shares by boasting about how difficult they make things for inmates.
One possible response: why should we care about what happens to prisoners? They’ve been tried and convicted in a court of law; don’t they deserve whatever they get? So what if it’s a little harder for them to communicate? At least they’re not calling me. (Come to think of it, arguing over whether prisoners ought to have the right to make collect calls, and whether law-abiding citizens ought to be subjected to the possibility of having to refuse collect calls from prisoners, might in some rather interesting ways resemble the debate over the legality of spam.) To which I might reply: I think this letter stands as sufficient evidence of how important and inalienable everyone’s rights are in a democratic society.
I hope you might poke around the vultures’ site a bit, and check out the relations between profit, surveillance, and speech. (I think immediately, of course, of a recent C&W presentation.) I’m working on a letter to Maryland DOC, and maybe more, since I think that the practices T-Netix boasts about border on the unconstitutional.
And as always, if you’re interested, my brother — David — loves to get letters, and is a good correspondent. He’s a sweet, good-natured, and immensely sociable guy who’s graduating in July with an Associate’s degree earned entirely in prison. Pretty liberal in his politics, although the feminist in me sometimes groans at the stuff he gets from his intensely masculine environment. He also sits on the inmate advisory council, does a lot of work with AA, and helps tutor other inmates who are working towards their GEDs. Drop me an email if you’d like his address.