Making Phone Calls From Our Prison Costs Us More Than Just the Money

    Thirty years ago, Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) prisoners were only allowed one 15-minute phone call per month. You made an appointment at the chaplain’s office, and you made the call sitting across from him at his desk. He stared at you the whole time, and would disconnect the call if you cussed. Once after a prisoner had escaped he showed up with a shotgun. You got two tries, so you dialed the number carefully and hoped the person you were calling was home.

    Twenty years ago, the phone was on the prison wall. It was collect call, $1.50 connection fee and around 70 cents per minute for Georgia; $1.20 for out of state. The person receiving the call had to agree to pay for it in order to accept. You entered your GDC identification number to reach an outside line, and the call was recorded. If GDC saw fit to impose disciplinary sanctions, “loss of phone privileges” meant your ID number would be blocked.

    Today, you speak into the phone for voice recognition before you enter your ID number. Calls are free for the recipient, because now they cost prisoners 13 cents per minute, which is 13 cents more than GDC pays us for our labor. The money goes to the service provider—a misnomer for second-largest US prisons communications firm and notorious extortionist Securus Technologies. You stand in a row of other phones being used by other prisoners for the same; if the cord’s long enough, you can sit on the floor. Securus records the call, and hangs up for you 15 minutes later.

    The only numbers you can dial out are the ones on your Call Allow List. These lists are limited to 20 GDC-approved numbers at a time, and can only be updated every six months. After you submit an update a GDC counselor is supposed to verify the number (no victims or witnesses associated with the ID number) and send it onto Securus, which is supposed to input it into the system within five days.

    The phone policy does not, however, specify a timeframe for GDC to complete its side of the process. Sometimes we wait years for a number to be added. GDC did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

    So many of us have the grievance formula memorized, from the countless grievances filed over years or decades.

    “Have tried for two calendar years to update: Georgia Department of Corrections, Offender Phone System, Call Allow List, per GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Standard Operating Procedures, Policy Number 227.01 and followed all directions (in same) under Section IV – Part C – Paragraphs 1-5, without success. This neglect is now a violation of United States Constitution Amendments 1, 8 and 14.”

    Filing a grievance should be part of GDC’s instructions for updating Call Lists. So many of us have the formula memorized, from the countless handwritten grievances filed over years or decades. The words are probably indented into the tables in the prison law libraries, a little deeper each time a loved one gets a new number.

    A grievance is the first step toward a lawsuit, but the intention is rarely to get that far. A properly worded grievance is easily resolved through a face-to-face meeting with a deputy warden of Care and Treatment, who due to staff shortages is handling grievances. They’ll input the number from a different computer in a different office. Ta-da.

    It often works, but whether it’s worth it is a different question.

    This is because after inputting the new number, the same deputy warden often adds the name of the grievance writer to the transfer lists compiled each day. Within the next two weeks, that writer will be rounded up along with others from these lists, shackled, and bused to a different facility.

    The official reason will be something like Too Familiar With Staff or Redistribution of Population. Both can be applied to anyone who’s been at a facility for more than one year, and will signal to staff at the receiving facility that someone’s being offloaded because they caused trouble, and is now their problem to deal with.

    This prisoner will depart in the most worn-out of their three uniforms, and be given the same at the supply warehouse wherever they arrive. They’ll be assigned a bunk in the worst living unit, and a detail catching the dirty trays and cups shoved at them through the small window from the chow hall. Whenever educational opportunities pass through, their file will be somewhere else.

    Phone grievances are often seen as the last straw if someone has a history of standing up to administration.

    Any oppressive regime is threatened when someone wins a battle against it, even an administrative one. It inspires others who are oppressed to do the same. Too much of that, and staff would be filling out paperwork and inputting new phone numbers all day.

    Phone grievances aren’t always followed by transfer, but they’re often seen as the last straw if someone has a history of standing up to administration. One way or another, their life will be made worse; often without getting anything in return.

    I haven’t made a phone call in over 15 years, since my mother died. You have to pick your battles when you aren’t free.

    Prisoners often find their ID number blocked from the phones after they’ve been sent to Disciplinary Report court. Loss of privileges for 90 days. Much as it was 20 years ago, except today it’s a big driver in the contraband cell phone market. Incidentally, hardly anyone ever ends up in Disciplinary Report court for getting caught with one of those. Some other prisoner will be deputized to liberate the confiscated phone from Security, and some Security officer will get their cut once the phone is sold back.



    Photograph via Utah Department of Corrections

    • Jimmy Iakovos is a pseudonym for a writer who is incarcerated in Georgia. It is illegal in some Southern states to earn a living while under a sentence of penal servitude. Writing has enabled Jimmy to endure over 30 years of continuous imprisonment.

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