By Mike Ward | Friday, February 13, 2009
Using voice-identity technology once used to order U.S. military air strikes, Texas on March 30 will begin allowing prison convicts to make legal phone calls for the first time on old-fashioned, hard-wired handsets that promise to earn taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Texas is the last state in the nation to allow an inmate phone system. Prison officials announced today that the first eight phones will be activated at the Byrd Unit, the prison system’s primary intake and assessment unit in Huntsville. Within a month, five additional prisons will get hundreds more.
All of Texas’ 112 state prisons should have inmate phones ringing by September, when the final lockups are to be hooked up. That’s two months later than initial projections, a delay that officials attributed to planning delays. Ironically, the change comes as authorities officials are battling to rid prisons of smuggled cell phones and other contraband, an issue that came to light last October after a death row inmate called — and then threatened — a state senator with a smuggled cell phone.
For years, as other states installed inmate phone systems, Texas prison officials resisted such a move. But two years ago, lawmakers changed state law to allow for prison phones as a way to generate revenue for state coffers and the Victim’s Compensation Fund. Officials said they hope the new phone system will lessen the demand for smuggled cell phones, although that has not necessarily proven the case in other states that already have inmate phone systems. Project manager Wendell Stewart and Paul Cooper, director and general manager of inmate phone systems for Embarq, the company hired to install and operate the phones, said the system will work like this:
– Convicts must be approved to make calls, and the numbers they are calling must be pre-approved by prison officials to ensure that no victims or their families are included.
– Each time they make a call, the system will validate the convict’s prison number, their “biometric voice print” — verify their voice — and the number they are calling.
– People who answer the calls will hear a recorded voice message alerting them that the call is coming from a prison, and giving them the option of accepting the call, declining it or blocking all further prison calls.
Stewart said the system will allow for collect calls, or for calls pre-paid from an account into which family members can transfer money or convicts can transfer funds from their trust accounts. Inmates’ family members will be able to sign up online. More than a million people are expected to register to receive calls from the 140,000 convicts who will be eligible to make them, Cooper said.
“I have never encountered a project with as many details as this project,” Stewart said.
Cooper told the Texas Board of Criminal Justice that the “biometric” aspect of the new system “was used in Vietnam in air strikes … to verify that the person asking for the air strike was approved to do so.” Cooper said secure underground cables and other equipment are being installed in prisons, and crews expect to complete the work at a rate of about 15-18 prisons per month.
Board member Tom Mechler questioned whether a security lapse could occur if a convict called his mother’s house — an approved number — “and his mom is gone and his drug contact is at home.” Prison officials acknowledged that calls could be answered by someone not approved to receive them, but they insisted such calls would be quickly detected by other security measures being built into the system. All calls will be recorded, and the calls will be monitored on a sporadic basis by prison investigators, gang specialists and even wardens. Wardens can turn off all phones if a problem arises, officials said.
Mechler appeared assured by the detail, noting he was confident “we’ve taken every effort to make sure we’re doing everything right.”