Talk isn't cheap

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.

Despite the cost of the system, none of which is paid by Dallas County, Southwestern Bell pays a whopping 49 percent of what's generated from the phones to the county. MCI is paying the county a 51 percent commission on long-distance calls, which was the highest commission of its kind in the state in February, according to one county memo.

All of that means the charges being levied against those outside the walls of Dallas jails could be cut by millions of dollars and Southwestern Bell and MCI would still show a profit from inmate telephones.

Jill Wesson, director of regulatory management and public communications with Southwestern Bell in San Antonio, would not disclose her company's profit margin. However, she did not deny that her company is making money off of inmate telephones.

But, she says, "My piece of the pie is surprisingly small."

Small, maybe, but certainly increasing.

The latest jail phone-rate increase--the second in two years--took place in April, when the cost of local collect calls was increased by 80 cents and long distance by 20 cents a minute.

It wasn't like this a couple of years ago, before the Federal Communications Commission issued new rules related to pay telephones to allow pay-telephone providers to charge higher fees to make up for operating costs.

An FCC spokesman said the agency acted because too many callers were using "dial-around" numbers on pay telephones and that caused pay-telephone revenues to plunge. The new rules were supposed to allow for more pay-telephone competition and help operators recoup costs.

But counties like Dallas and the nation's telecommunications giants interpreted the new rules a bit differently. They used their new leeway to boost surcharges at jails dramatically.

Since the change went into effect, Dallas County more than doubled the revenue from its inmate telephones from $2.1 million in 1996 to what is expected to be nearly $5 million next year, according to a county budget analyst. The money goes into the county's general fund.

Nobody at the FCC, the state's Public Utility Commission (the agency responsible for oversight of telecommunications), or the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is taking issue with soaring jail telephone fees, and apparently nobody plans to.

"My understanding is that the pay-phone owners can charge whatever they want," says Craig Stroup, an FCC industry economist in Washington, D.C. "I'm aware of no FCC regulations limiting the prices of pay phone calls, and I'm unaware of any states that have any regulations."

Rick Guzman, assistant public counsel for the Texas Office of the Public Utility Council, says no one has complained.

Ada Dixon's county commissioner, John Wiley Price, told the Dallas Observer in a written statement that those who receive collect calls may refuse them. In addition, he said, he personally insisted that the counseling contract be included to warn those who accept many calls that they will be billed higher-than-typical charges.

Jail telephone revenue is one way for the county to receive between $4 million and $4.5 million a year, he said.

"There are three programs that allow for the sheriff or county to generate revenue from persons serving time in our jails, using inmate phones and the commissary," he wrote. "The two additional programs which are available that we have not implemented are charging $25 a day for room and board for serving time on county convictions and inmates reimbursing the county for medical services received while they are in jail."

It's true that Dallas County could charge for room, board, and medicine, but the county would be allowed to charge only the inmate--not the inmate's family, friends, or lawyer.

What's more, only those inmates who have their own money or who get a decent job after jail that can be forced to repay the county for time behind bars.

The Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) has a big problem with the high fees being charged for jail telephone usage in Dallas and elsewhere in the country, says Kay Perry, national chairwoman of the group and its Michigan director. Because of what Perry described as obscene fees being collected from jail phones, CURE is in the midst of a national campaign aimed at getting telephone costs for jail and prison inmates down to somewhere near actual operating costs.  

It is ludicrous, she said, for anyone to say governments should try to recoup the cost of operating a jail by putting the squeeze on the families and friends of those on the inside.

"To some degree nationwide, it's very popular to beat up on prisoners, but on the telephone issue they are not beating up on prisoners, they are beating up on families," she says.

Several studies, one recently conducted by the Florida legislature, show that inmates fare better and are more quickly rehabilitated when they are allowed regular contact with those on the outside, Perry says.

Besides, it's just wrong to make so much money off of those on the outside by using those who are behind bars, she says.

"I think it's outrageous, and in fact I would go so far as to say it's immoral. They've got a captive audience. These are people who have absolutely no choice in how they can make their call," she says. "And, it's the family members who are having to pay. Many of them are poor to begin with, and they haven't done anything wrong other than love somebody in prison."

Ada Dixon, a woman with kind eyes and a devotion to religion, surely isn't a criminal. She just wants to talk to her son.

"We want to talk to our loved ones, you know...I love to talk to him and try to give him some encouraging words," she said. "He needs somebody to talk to."

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