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Northeast resident Glenda Blackmon could see her husband for just one hour a week during his two months at the D.C. Jail earlier this year. With so little face time, Blackmon’s husband felt compelled to call her collect from jail up to five times a day. She says her phone bills reached $265 a month.

“I didn’t know until I looked at my bill,” says Blackmon, who never turned down a call even after she realized the cost. She says she also put up with a poor connection. “The phones are all staticky and messed up. They need new ones.”

For as long as Department of Corrections spokesperson Darryl Madden can remember, inmates at the D.C. Jail have had one way to reach friends and family on the outside—collect calls on traditional pay phones. Average price per call, according to jail visitors, is $1.75 for 10 minutes.

Now the department has a cheaper solution. Using advanced phones interfaced with the inmate database, callers will now use a personal-identification-number system to dial out at lower call rates, with money coming from their private commissary accounts—personal cash that inmates normally use to upgrade their government-issue soap and underwear. The new system, says Madden, will substantially cut down the “exorbitant amount of costs that inmate families were having to endure” with collect calls.

There’s only one glitch in the system: The city can’t install it.

The pay phones belong to Verizon D.C., the local branch of the telecommunications giant, which has been tied up in litigation with the city since last November over the District’s free use of Verizon’s underground ducts (“Tunnel Warfare,” 12/12/03). In order to install its new system, the city needs Verizon to remove the jail’s only inmate phones. There are at least two Verizon pay phones in each of the D.C. Jail’s 18 housing units. Verizon apparently has refused to let them go.

Until Verizon’s contract with the city expires in late October, inmates will be able to reach only those who are willing to foot the price of the calls. In his March 1 testimony to city council, Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington said the new system is ready to be installed. “This is a matter that’s very frustrating,” said Washington. “They [Verizon] are the ones that can remove the phones before we can install the new phones, and they have refused to do that….We cannot manually, physically remove the phones.” An April 2001 D.C. Council bill required the Department of Corrections to provide a plan for a new inmate phone system by October 2001.

With that system still in the pipeline, friends and family of inmates say they’ll continue accepting calls regardless of the rate. “By the end of the month, that bill is gonna be high,” says Northeast resident Mildred Brewer, who accepted collect calls from her son during his recent stint at the jail. “I just want him to be comfortable.” CP