The first of the roughly 6,000 phones that will make up the TDCJ Offender Phone System were installed and activated in late March at the Henley State Jail in Dayton. Others are to be installed at TDCJ facilities through September.
The Texas Board of Criminal Justice awarded a contract for the offender telephone system to Embarq of Overland Park, Kansas last August. Its subcontractor, Securus Technologies of Dallas, is responsible for installing the telephones and maintaining the system.
TDCJ’s contract with Embarq calls for the state to receive no less than 40 percent of the gross billable revenue from the telephone system. The first $10 million received by the state is to be deposited in the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. All additional revenue will be divided evenly between that fund and the state’s General Revenue fund.
Prior to the installation of the phones, “voice prints” are taken from all offenders eligible to use them. The initial voice biometric recognition enrollment process began in early January and continues into June. More than 77,300 offenders had enrolled through mid-April. Offenders with major disciplinary problems, gang affiliations or on death row will not have access to the telephone system.
In either English or Spanish, the computer software program used in the enrollment process prompts an offender to state his or her full name four times into a telephone handset and then once again to verify the name. Offenders are then required to designate the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as their “facility” by repeating the agency name in full four times. Individual unit names are not used since offenders are oftentimes transferred from one unit to another during their periods of incarceration.
The pay phones are being installed in day rooms or other common areas at a ratio no greater than 30 eligible offenders per telephone. At Henley, 27 phones were installed, three phones for every 64-bed pod at the facility.
“I like being able to call home,” said Christie McNamara, who was the first TDCJ offender in the state to make a prepaid or collect call on the system when she dialed her husband in Bridge City from the Henley facility on March 30. “We have a daughter and we’re trying to make wedding plans. We have been doing it by mail, but now we can do it over the phone.”
McNamara said she’d probably be calling her husband from Henley three times a week. Six other offenders at Henley made calls to family members or friends the first day the phones were operational.
To receive calls, offender family members or friends can register on-line at texasprisonphone.com or call Embarq at 866-806-7804. The owner of the telephone number must be listed on the offender’s visitors list and his or her name must also match the name on the registrant’s driver’s license or state identification card. That information must also be reflected on their telephone listing or bill.
Further, receiver registrants must confirm that they are the registered owner of the telephone number and are not registering a wireless number. They must agree to allow the offender to call the phone number and be willing to accept financial responsibility for collect calls. Registrants must also be at least 18 years old and confirm that they will not forward calls or make a 3-way call received from an offender.
“Overall, I think it’s going to be a good thing,” Region III Director Brian Rodeen said about the phone system after seeing it demonstrated at Henley. “The more contact the offenders can have with their families and friends, the better goes their rehabilitation. Being involved with their families or in establishing outside relationships, whether by phone or by writing, helps them with their transition once they are released. So I think it’s going to be a plus, especially for our treatment facilities.”
To make a call, an offender first enters the number being dialed on a keypad, followed by his or her TDCJ number, which serves as a Personal Identification Number or PIN. Offenders then verify their name by saying it in the same manner it was recorded during enrollment, and then say “Texas Department of Criminal Justice.” Offenders are limited to calling only those friends or family members who appear on their approved visitor lists. Crime victims and their families can block offender calls by registering with Victim Services, and all calls, except to an offender’s attorney of record, are subject to monitoring and recording.
TDCJ Inspector General John Moriarty said the Legislature has given his office 30 investigator and criminal intelligence analyst positions which will help the agency effectively deal with the telephone system.
“We’re able to monitor any offender phone call made from any of the 112 units throughout the system in one single location,” Moriarty said. “There’s going to be targeted monitoring of certain offenders and there’s going to be some random monitoring also. This is in addition to any monitoring that unit correctional staff may conduct. We’ve done a great deal of research on the monitoring systems that are available and we believe that we have the finest investigative package in the country.”
Only after an offender’s name, PIN and the number dialed have been verified will a call go through. Offenders are allowed up to 120 minutes of phone time a month, with no one call lasting more than 15 minutes. The pay phones are available to offenders between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. unless conditions dictate a change.
Two types of accounts are available. Prepaid rates with an Offender Account are fixed at 23 cents per minute in-state and 39 cents out-of-state. With the Friends & Family Account, collect and prepaid calls placed within Texas cost 26 cents per minute, while out-of-state collect calls are billed at a rate of 43 cents per minute. No international calls or calls to cell phones are allowed.
Additional TDCJ facilities will be equipped with pay phones throughout the summer months.