15 July, 2020

The Game of Telephone, Prison Style

Seventy-two prisoners sharing four telephones seems like someone's idea for the setup for an ultraviolent action movie, but that's what we contend with at ERDCC. This makes an eighteen-to-one ratio of prisoners to phones. Someone's always waiting in line. You're lucky when it isn't you.

There's a system, of sorts. The phones, each one a tough black archaic payphone-style receiver attached via metal cord to a stainless steel box on a pole, flank the wing entrance, two on the left, two on the right. The unofficial waiting area is by the support beam between them. Those disinclined to stand sometimes sit on the footlocker full of games no one plays, up against the front wall. It's common courtesy to ask, when coming to take your place in line, who all is waiting on a phone. At a glance, you can't always tell the difference between those standing around bored and those standing around with purpose. The system works adequately, most of the time. Breakdowns are generally the fault of two types of people.

The first type is what I call the Camper, the man who, once he takes a seat on the stool in front of the phone, might just as well be readying the space for an overnight stay. He has his address book, his tablet, headphones, some photos, a notebook and pen, a batch of personal letters, a bowl of food, a mug of some colored beverage or other, a pitcher of ice water, a damp washcloth, and maybe something to pick his teeth with after eating his meal there. He turns his back on everyone waiting. He kicks up his feet. He holds his headphones up to the receiver, to share a song he recently downloaded. He pointedly avoids looking at the clock.

The other type of problem caller is what I've dubbed the Teleporter. This is the guy who tells the last person line, "I'm after you," then vanishes and does something else. The Teleporter might not be seen for a half hour or forty-five minutes thereafter, rematerializing only after what had been the last guy in line gets a phone, thereby taking the current line's constituency by surprise: Where the hell was this guy five minutes ago? And now he wants to jump in front of me? The Teleporter breeds discord and dissatisfaction, and we all wish he'd get off his high horse to wait alongside the rest of us.

For the many years I lived in good-conduct wings at Crossroads Correctional Center, the prisoner-to-phone ratio was a far more workable twelve to one — 50% better than at ERDCC. During peak hours at Crossroads, such as right after coming in from meals, someone might wait ten or fifteen minutes, a perfectly reasonable amount of time, before making their call. Here, there are periods of the day when one is lucky to get a phone at all.

Requests for additional phones to be installed in ERDCC's good-conduct wings, which are open and active all day long, meet solely with stonewalling. "A feasibility study would have to be done," said one official response, as if Crossroads' performance, and that of its sister facilities, was insufficient proof of concept. ERDCC could cut down on a great deal of tension if its residents could more easily contact the people in their support system. More importantly, though, is that mounds of evidence show outside connections being one of the most effective elements in prisoners' rehabilitation. If a correctional center wants to live up to its name, why would it hamper its own efforts at effective correction? Unless, of course, it's not really trying to correct at all....

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