Talk isn't cheap

Dallas County rakes in millions from pricey pay phones at the jail

At a glass-topped dinette table, beneath a framed painting of Jesus Christ, 15-year-old Quinton Dixon quickly eats lunch before heading out the door of his small Oak Cliff apartment.

"Don't stay out too long," his mother, Ada Dixon, 48, cautions from the couch in the living room a couple of feet away.

Dixon worries about her young son. He's asthmatic. She worries about money and the things she can't get him before school starts. She has diabetes, a heart condition, and high blood pressure, all of which keep her from working.

Needless to say, her $512 monthly allowance from the Social Security Administration doesn't go very far.

"It's hard," she says. "It's hard, but I have to do what I have to do. I can't work. Some things I need, I live without. I do the best I can," she says.

But for those who run Dallas County government, Dixon's income isn't an issue. The county wants her money, and the county is getting a lot of it. Last month, Dallas County collected more than a third of her meager income. This month, they'll get some more. In fact, the county and big business are counting on Dixon and others like her--mostly those with low incomes--to pump more than $40 million into county coffers over the next 10 years. Taking advantage of a little-known change in federal telecommunications law, Dallas County and others in the state have during the last two to three years quietly begun charging people like Dixon a fortune to accept telephone calls from jail.

This year alone, Dallas County's 7,000 jail inmates--Dixon's oldest son among them--will provide $4.9 million in revenues, with about the same amount of gross revenue going to Southwestern Bell and MCI.

Nobody's paid much attention to the big fee hikes so far. After all, these are families and friends of jail inmates. They are mostly the poor, who like Dixon, often accept such things silently.

The county's inmates--some of whom await trial and are not yet convicted of a crime--have no choice but to use the county's telephones and on the county's terms if they want to call family, friends, or even a lawyer.

Right now, it costs Dixon a minimum $4.10 for each call she accepts from her son Kerry Washington, even though he is housed a little more than five miles from her home, awaiting transfer to federal prison to serve a 30-year-sentence for robbery. The $4.10 fee pays for a call of up to 15 minutes. The line goes dead after that and sometimes in mid-sentence, Dixon says. Long distance calls from the jail cost the recipients $3.50 plus 55 cents a minute.

"I try to tell him not to call me," Dixon says. "I tell him to call me once a week, but he still calls me. He says he just likes to hear my voice, hear me say everything is going to be all right."

It hurts to refuse a call from her son, especially since hardly anybody else Washington knows will agree to accept the charges, she says.

"He says, 'Mom, I be worried about you.' He just says, 'I'm worried something's going wrong with you, if you're real sick or in the hospital or something like that.' But I told him that I have to cut back. I can't afford to pay it no more."

Some Dallas-area lawyers, who have been similarly stuck with big bills from their jailed clients, are also turning down calls, and they aren't as agreeable as Dixon. John Weddle, a Garland attorney who was the sheriff's lawyer from 1990 to 1998, and others are infuriated by what they say amounts to gouging.

Weddle, who is preparing to file a class-action lawsuit against the county because of the high jail telephone fees, says the setup is against the law.

"I believe that it is illegal to make a profit off of the inmates just because they are a captive audience," he says.

Other lawyers say that because they must turn down calls from inmates, they could be compromising their ability to prepare a proper defense--another potential legal problem for Dallas and other counties in Texas and in other states where six class action lawsuits related to jail phone fees are already filed.

One of the lawsuits, filed in New Mexico, says inmates are forced to pay "uncompetitive, unconscionable, and illegal charges." That lawsuit, filed in January, has not yet gone to trial.

Proponents of the fees say running a jail is an expensive business. The budget for the Dallas County jail next year is $59.3 million. They also say no one has to accept the collect calls, which always are identified as coming from the jail. In addition, if any single number is called numerous times, a counseling service checks in with the telephone owner to make sure he or she is aware how much the bill will be, says Chris Thompson, director of communications and central services for Dallas County.

Opponents of the high phone fees concede that inmate telephones are more costly to operate than a pay telephone in front of 7-Eleven might be. That's because inmate telephones are routed through a special system that blocks any attempts to call victims, "800" numbers, and three-way calling (so inmates don't use a friend to get to a victim), and the system has other special features to stop such things as fraud.

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