| ----- Original Message -----
From: Taoss - Sherry Swiney
To: PATRICK Crusade
Sent: Tuesday, October 14, 2003 7:43 PM
Subject: Re: High cost of prison phone calls devestates small oaklahoma town
See the following N.Y. Times article about how the high cost of prison phone calls hurt a small oklahma town, contributed by PC member, Francis. Perhaps our Public Service Agencies and Correctional Departments need to know how it goes when FINALLY the people have had enough. It's coming...they just don't know it. Pass it on, please...
SAYRE, Okla. - Nearly 1,000 criminals were hauled away from here this summer, all of them incarcerated convicts, never to return. It pained nearly everyone to see them go.
The exodus from this remote western Oklahoma town took with it about 225 jobs and a third of the government's revenues after a furor over the cost of inmates' phone calls led to the closing of a prison.
"It's a huge blow," said Elaine Barker, the city clerk. With the prisoners gone, the operating budget this year has been chopped by a third to $2.7 million, Ms. Barker said. Plans for a new City Hall have been halted indefinitely. The city has put off renovating an old building for the Police and Fire Departments and constructing a 60-unit apartment complex to relieve the acute housing shortage.
Hiring has stopped. One of five water department jobs has been cut. With nothing to build, the city construction manager has been let go. The job of economic development director has been eliminated. The city had budgeted for a full-time treasurer to succeed the part-time treasurer, who retired, but now Ms. Barker has inherited those duties.
After a heady run of rebuilding and face-lifting, Sayre, about 120 miles west of Oklahoma City, is at a dead stop, all because of the collapse of its primary economic engine: a five-year-old, $35 million, red-roofed, gray-walled, privately run medium-security prison, the North Fork Correctional Facility.
Over the summer, the prison management company, the Corrections Corporation of America, sent the 989 inmates, all from Wisconsin, to another of its facilities, 100 miles northeast of Sayre. Now the state-of-the-art prison in Sayre languishes in its prairie-grass setting.
Sayre's travails arose from the loss of commissions it had received on prisoners' collect, long-distance telephone calls home to Wisconsin. Their families each paid about $22 for 20 minutes. Sayre collected up to 42 percent, and the contractor, AT&T, took the rest. For the fiscal year that ended in June, Sayre's share amounted to $656,000, close to the entire city budget in the years just before the prison opened.
"We got ourselves into a situation where we were unable to control the outcome," Jack W. Ivester, the mayor and a lawyer, said. "Looking back, there were a couple of road signs that we missed."
Sayre, population 4,114 before the inmates left, is one of about 200 rural communities in the nation, many ravaged by population declines and the loss of farms, factories and mines, that brought in prisons to bolster their economies during the 1990's. Swallowing fears about the proximity of criminals, the towns tapped into a growing population of prisoners and a shortage of prisons in many states.
"To my mind," Jack McKennon, the city manager of Sayre, said two years ago while the town prospered, "there's no more recession-proof form of economic development."
But in some states, growth in the number of prisoners has stalled, and some are opening new prisons so they won't have to send inmates elsewhere. Burned, Mr. McKennon says now, "It's just like a manufacturing plant that says they're going to move to China or Mexico."For a couple of years, Wisconsin pressed the corrections company, based in Nashville, for lower telephone rates. But the company, which had no say about the contract that would not expire until next November, deferred to Sayre and AT&T. City officials say that they tried to renegotiate it but that AT&T declined. "The rates we charge are no higher in Oklahoma than anywhere else," a spokesman for AT&T, Kerry Hibbs, said.
The corrections company, faced with losing its contract to house the Wisconsin prisoners, moved the men to its prison in Watonga, Okla., where it holds the telephone contract and can meet the Wisconsin limit of about $8 for a 20-minute call.
Sayre officials said that six and seven years ago, during the discussions about building a prison, no one - not they, the corrections company or the state of Wisconsin - raised doubts about charging inmates much higher rates than consumers pay. The fees were high, Ms. Barker said, "but in defense of the city, the contract was in place when Wisconsin signed the contract with C.C.A. to house their prisoners here."
Still, Mayor Ivester said, "when Wisconsin prisoners went to Sayre, we started getting complaints."
"When we received those complaints," he continued, "we conveyed them to AT&T, and that's where I think the problem was. AT&T was inflexible. On two occasions, the city went to AT&T and said, `You need to accommodate the rates with the complaints from Wisconsin.'
"In both cases we were rebuffed," the mayor said. "The answer was no. A third time we went to C.C.A. and said, `We've tried. You talk to them.' C.C.A. experienced the same inflexibility we did."
Bill Clausius, the spokesman for the Wisconsin prison department, said the state repeatedly pressed the corrections company to bring rates down to $1.25 to connect and 22 cents per minute, well below the Sayre rate of $3.95 to connect and 89 cents a minute.
Mr. Hibbs at AT&T said: "We find it hard to believe that they would shut down the prison over telephone rates. We had no interest in shutting the prison down."
Ms. Barker said, "AT&T wanted us to buy out the contract for a price of $850,000, which was way above our means."
With the corrections company looking more and more determined to move the men, AT&T let Sayre out of the contract in late June at no cost to the city and washed its hands of further business here. In a statement then, AT&T said, "We wish Sayre well in finding a new phone service provider for its prison and hope that the facility and accompanying jobs will be saved."
But by then Wisconsin and the corrections company had had enough, and the vans to Watonga were rolling. "Everyone tried to get those rates lowered," said Louise Green, vice president for marketing at the corrections company. "It was not done."
Sayre and the corrections company, both with big stakes in the prison here, are seeking a new customer. Once they have one, Sayre could resume collecting water and sewer fees from the prison and a sales tax from the prison commissary but much less from the telephone calls.
To avoid another closing, Ms. Barker said, "we're negotiating with different phone companies, and we've got some really nice proposals."
Mostly, though, they would be nicer for prisoners. "It would cut our income tremendously," she said.