August 3, 1999
Associated Press (AP) Newswires
 Associated Press Newswires

Convicts are a dependable workforce, says manager

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - State inmates at the regional jail here are working as telemarketers, and officials say precautions have been taken to avoid the abuses that have marred such operations in other states.

Since May the inmates have pitched a voicemail system for
telecommunications giant MCI under contract with Inmark International LLC, a Las Vegas company that markets by phone in several states under different arrangements, from prisons to big offices to homes.

The reason for hiring inmates, says Steve Hatfield, a Telemark manager, is simple: "I need people who are there every day."

He said Telemark had to staff a 250-desk facility in Nevada with only 75 workers, despite hiring by the hundreds.

If inmates quit before their six-month contract ends, they could be "written up" for breaking jail rules.

Hatfield says the work seems to have a positive effect on the inmates.

"We train them to become customer service reps in the future, getting them to talk in a professional manner," he said. Inmates also may earn a certificate to use in future job-seeking.

Glen Davis of Montana Correctional Enterprises at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge agrees that the inmates benefit. "We teach them a work ethic. We teach them a job skill," Davis said. "Most of these guys don't have any discipline in their lives. That's why they're here."

At least 17 states now have programs involving prisoners working with the public over the telephone.

Some programs have drawn criticism for allowing prisoners access to people's credit card numbers, bank records, home addresses and other information that could be exploited. Montana officials say they have avoided those pitfalls.

Chief Capt. Dan O'Fallon, jail administrator, said he made certain prisoners would never call anyone in Montana's 406 area code so they are unlikely to talk to with friends, witnesses or victims.

The process begins when a computer in another state dials the number and makes theales pitch. Most people hang up, but those interested have their calls transferred to the jail. If the inmate persuades the prospect to buy, the call is transferred to a "verifier" in Utah, who collects the information and makes sure any agreement is clear. No credit cards are involved, and calls are recorded and monitored by people somewhere else.

The Cascade County jail has room for 12 inmates to work but is slated for an expansion that will allow about 20. With multiple shifts, about 50 prisoners, or a third of the inmate population, could work there.

The telemarketing jobs pay minimum wage. Deductions are made for taxes, any court-ordered restitution, and a percentage for a crime victims fund. A portion goes to the prison to offset incarceration costs. In the end, telemarketing inmates make less than $1.30 an hour. In contrast, most prison jobs such as custodial and kitchen work bring in about $1.50 a day.

Critics question the morality of such inmate-labor programs as well as their economics.

"When we begin to contract out prison labor with the private sector, we're approaching the same kind of moral codes of some our trading partners," said Don Judge, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, an association of labor unions. He was referring to the People's Republic of China, which has long been accused of using forced labor in its prisons.

"Why is the state involved in providing minimum-wage jobs to the private sector?" Judge asked. "It does nothing to improve the wages and benefits of the people of Montana."

He also doubts the usefulness of the skill the inmates learn and scoffs at claims that telemarketers cannot find good workers in today's tight labor market.

"It's only tight because they can't find people to work at such a low wage," he said.

Our thanks to Rob Biggerstaff for this story......

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