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Ask Matt ... about calls from jail

The Lightning's intrepid researcher gets answers to readers' questions.

Q. I received a call with a recorded message that began, "This call is from an inmate in the Buncombe County jail..." Before I hung up, I was asked to set up a credit card account. Was this a scam?

What may have happened was that an inmate called you by mistake and since your phone line was not listed on the inmate's "account" you were asked to set one up and yes, pre-pay. This was not a scam. It's a legitimate business.
Prison inmates cannot receive calls while in jail — they can only place outgoing calls. For example, inside our own Henderson County Detention Center there are banks of four "blue" telephones in each inmate residency area. Inmates can buy phone cards at the jail canteen for $10, which allows 20 minutes of local call time. An account can easily be set up by someone outside the prison walls (family, friends, lawyers) to feed that account. One can even credit an inmate's account from an ATM machine in the jail lobby. Most inmates have unlimited phone access but even those in solitary confinement are allotted one hour of phone access per day. In short, for prison inmates the word is "don't call us, we'll call you."
The jail neither owns nor maintains the blue phones. They are the property of Securus Technologies, a Texas company that serves over 2,000 correctional facilities in 45 states. Securus makes its money on phone card sales and credit card charges; however, under the contract here, Henderson County gets 43% of the gross phone revenue. Securus also records all inmate phone calls, which may be monitored for jail security. Those recordings may be used in court. Only face-to-face conversations between an attorney and his or her client are deemed confidential.
Companies like Securus are under fire across the country for having a monopoly on prisoner phone calls. There are many rival companies that specialize in cutting phone rates, particularly for out-of state calls, which can be very expensive. With some 55,000 inmates in just North Carolina state prisons and county jails, one can easily see that prison phones are big business.
Capt. Jim Player, Henderson County Jail Administrator, took me through his well-maintained facility. The tour was eye opening. Most people don't realize that we provide security, food, medical services, and more 24/7 for an average of 167 male and female inmates. Sheriff's deputies process 10 to 15 new inmates per day. Some bond out within hours and some stay more than a year awaiting trial — often making phone call.