Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Crack House

There is a small building (#826) around the corner from Building 2240 (administrative office, dorms B & C) towards the commissary. If you watch it carefully, you will see people go in and out. After 15 minutes or so, you will see the pattern repeat itself every evening.

Welcome to the phone house, also known as the "crack house."

I happen to have a photograph of the building (see below, the commissary hangar is in the background) which is on the far western edge of the camp. You can also reference the maps at the bottom of each page. This is the only building across Barin street that is not "out of bounds." In most prisons, the phones are a source of many fights, second perhaps only to the TV room. That is because there are too few phones and too many inmates. Fortunately that is not the case here.

(click to enlarge)

The phone house has 20 phones. Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes at a time. If the phones are all occupied and there is a line, then, if you do the math, one phone should become available every 45 seconds (and that assumes everyone talks for 15 minutes). Therefore the line moves fast.

The BOP has developed a pretty cool system called the Inmate Telephone System (ITS). It records all calls, as well as regulates the time and frequency of the calls and allows you to manage your own account balance.

Inmates are allowed 300 min/month which works out to about one 15 minute call per weekday or one 10 minute call every day. Calls are limited to 15 minutes and you must wait 15 minutes between calls (which is why you see inmates walk outside and wait on the benches under the covered porch before reentering).

Initially you manage your account by pressing 118. You must then enter your 9-digit Phone Access Code (PAC). You can then transfer money from your commissary account to your phone account.

The cost of calls is as follows:

$0.06 Local
$0.23 Long Distance
$0.35 Canada
$0.55 Mexico
$0.99 International

If you use all 300 minutes on long distance calls, the most you can spend is $69 a month. (By the way, this does not count against your $290 monthly commissary budget... it is in addition to it.) Once you have money in your account, you can always check your minutes and balance using 118.

To place a call, you simply enter your number and then enter your 9-digit PAC. The number you dialed is matched against your list of approved phone numbers which must be submitted to your counselor in advance.

When the call is answered, the recipient hears a message like the following:

"You have a prepaid call.
You will not be charged for this call.
This call is from [inmate's recorded name], an inmate at a federal prison.
Hang up to decline this call or, to accept, dial 5 now.
If you wish to block future calls of this nature, dial 7 now."

Then you can talk.

Every 5 minutes or so you are interrupted by a message that says, "This call is from a Federal Prison." I'm sure there is a security reason for this, I just don't know what it is. Finally, you will hear a 2 minute and a 1 minute warning beep before being disconnected.

Today, the warning beeps occurred early. I knew I was getting close to my 300 minute limit and told my wife we might get disconnected and that we wouldn't be able to talk for 6 more days, until the first of the month. Sure enough, we got a busy signal a minute later which I am guessing tells me we are done talking for the month.

[UPDATE: Near the end of June, just before my release, they updated the commissary and phone accounting systems - TRUFACS and TRUFONE. The functionality was unchanged but everything worked noticeably faster. I think they hired a New York City "voice" to talk faster so you don't have to wait so long to hear the opening message. The previous voice must have been from Mississippi. She talked way to slow.]

[UPDATE: I found the following old (1999), but interesting documents illustrating effectively the single-minded myopia of the DOJ when it comes to stopping crime. They made recommendations, accusations actually, that the BOP did not effectively prevent inmates from committing crimes using BOP phones, including murders and drug deals. Phone nazis.

The second document from the November Coalition challenges their recommendations. ]

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