Bank robbers are discovering how it feels to be robbed when they make a phone call from a prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company that today oversees a large share of the nation's prisons and jails.
Only collect calls can be made from their facility here, which currently has me in its clutches. A 15-minute phone call runs more than $8.
"That might not sound like much, but my wife is on welfare," says one inmate, who's being tried on a gun charge. "She loves me, and her and my kids need to hear from me, but in another way she dreads my phone calls."
The Dallas, Texas-based Evercom Systems, Inc. holds the phone monopoly for over 2,000 city, county, state and private prisons and jails. We're told that special companies are needed as intermediaries because phone calls must be recorded and some lines have to be blocked. At this joint, Evercom charges $3 for a connection and 35 cents a minute.
Another inmate, who just arrived here from the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, hears us complaining about the price of our phone calls and says we should count our blessings:
"Over at the jail on Poplar Street it costs 60 cents a minute," he says. So a 15-minute call is $15. You guys are getting off cheap."
A lifer just in from the Tennessee State Prison says prices are a little better there, but not much:
"The state of Tennessee uses Global Telelink. Their rates are a $1.43 for the hook-up and 18 cents a minute. I guess that's a bargain compared to this place. I know Tennessee gets 42 percent as its cut. There's no telling what CCA gets on theirs here."
Inmates here tell the same story time after time. The first several collect phone calls to a number go through without any problem. After that, Correctional Billing Services, a subsidiary of Evercom, has an automated service that repeatedly calls loved ones who have received those calls.
When a friend I call answers Evercom's robot calls she hears a recorded message that leads her through a lengthy phone tree. At the end of the tree, she's told it's "a courtesy call," but since she gets three or four of these calls a day, they're hardly courtesies to her. She's told that 75 percent of her phone credit has been used up, and unless payment confirmation is made, the line will be restricted.
When she calls the number she was given to straighten out the bill, it turns out that Evercom's operators are based in Canada. I wonder why? Are they sidestepping some American credit laws, or is this just another example of outsourcing greed? She's told by the Canadian operator that Correctional Billing Services should be paid through her local phone company, SBC, which is what she routinely does anyhow. My collect-call charges from prison are part of her regular SBC bill.
But because the turnaround time for Evercom to get its money from SBC is one to two months, and because that money comes to Evercom in a lump sum without individual accounts being specified, she needs to verify payment to Correctional Billing herself, divulging personal credit information, to avoid restrictions on her line.
"I really feel like Correctional Billing is taking advantage," she tells me with scarcely concealed anger. "I don't like giving out my personal information over the telephone. I've paid my bill, and now it's between SBC and Correctional Billing Services. It really bothers me that Evercom can block my line at their whim, even though my bill is paid and has never been in arrears. You're stuck in what sounds like a horrible place, and I want to hear on a regular basis that everything is OK. There's no reason I should be hounded by this corporation in order to do that."
Whether it's the "for profit" motivation in corrections or the "throw away the key" mentality, cons are being gouged in every possible way. And it's especially hurtful because most convicts and their families are among the poorest people in America.
The bad news for jail and prison inmates and their families is that because of the exorbitant cost, fewer collect calls are being made and there is less contact with support systems. The good news is that stamps cost only 37 cents. Those of us who didn't make any money on our crimes are dropping the phone and grabbing a pen.
MASON, TENNESSEE – I thought stopping a 50-year smoking habit was impossible. A pack a day of non-filter Camel cigarettes for five decades is hard to quit. Even after a doctor told me that on a chest X-ray my lungs looked like two dried prunes.
I tried everything to stop: nicotine patches, Nicorette gum, hypnotism, monster willpower, you name it, I tried it, to no avail. The camel kept his nose in the tent.
Then I was charged with violating parole and found out that the first jail I went to was a no-smoking facility. I stayed there a week without a cigarette. I was going nuts, but by the sixth and seventh day I had calmed down some. By then I would pass two or three hours without thinking about a smoke.
After a week, the Corrections Corporation of America came and transported me to one of their privately run prisons in Mason, Tennessee. It's also a no-smoking facility.
I thought I'd see a bunch of inmates going crazy from nicotine withdrawal. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is something about being locked up and knowing that you can't smoke that has a calming effect on the nerves. Then again, tobacco is available here.
I wasn't even settled in before a convict asked me if I wanted to buy a cigarette. He said that, actually, it was just some tobacco that I could roll myself. The price was $3, payable in items that we purchase here at the canteen.
I asked him if I got a rolling paper with the deal, and he said no.
"But that's no problem," he told me. "There are plenty of Bibles here, and the pages make excellent rolling papers."
I'm not a religious person, but books are icons to me – I've written several of them myself. Bibles are books, after all, and I couldn't possibly tear one up and smoke it. Besides that, at $3 a stick, I can't afford enough smokes to keep me from wanting one, so I declined.
Regular cigarettes sell here for $50 a pack. Each cigarette is then broken down so that three rollups can be made from it. So a pack of cigarette brings $180 in canteen items.
Despite the high price, the demand always outstrips the supply. Someone's always looking to buy a cigarette. There aren't any matches in here but there are transistor radio batteries. The spark is made by applying steel wool and toilet paper to the radio battery.
One convict told me he buys a pack of cigarettes for $50 and smokes them all himself. He said a pack lasts him five or six days.
"Quite a few of us do that," he told me. "It cuts down the chance of getting told on, and most of the men who sell smokes do get told on eventually."
If a con is caught with tobacco, he goes straight to isolation. It's usually 15 days for the first offense and 30 for the second. Ironically, sometimes a man is put in isolation for smoking by the guard who sold him the cigarettes.
There was some excitement in the cellblock here a few nights ago when the police ran in and grabbed a guy accused of selling tobacco. They also detained an officer who was accused of bringing in the contraband and escorted him off the premises. We know the inmate is in isolation. We don't know the fate of the guard.
One inmate who is broke sells his tray of food to save up enough money to buy cigarettes now and then. But the food is so bad that he can get only 60 cents a tray. So he has to sell five meals before he can smoke. I've seen times when I was glad to go hungry for a cigarette, but not that hungry.
It's been two months for me now. Yesterday, a man offered me a drag from a Bible-page rollup. I told him: "I don't smoke." Man, it felt good saying that after 50 years.
I never thought jail would do anything positive for me, but there's a no-smoking program here that works. I wouldn't advise it, though, until you've tried everything else.
A new drug approved last year to treat heroin addiction is gaining acceptance, and I say it's about time. I'm a former bank robber and ex-heroin addict who kicked his habit years ago with the help of the drug, which was experimental then. But you should be hearing a lot more about it now.
The Federal Drug Administration approved buprenorphine hydrochloride last October. Now, doctors associated with the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco have announced they will use it to help addicts get through withdrawals.
We heroin addicts dread going through withdrawal. For some, going cold turkey in prison has been the only way to finally kick heroin. But by then, they may have left behind countless victims as they tried to feed the habit.
Over a quarter of a century ago, methadone was introduced for the maintenance of heroin addicts. As it turns out, methadone's high is as potent as heroin's, and most addicts find it even harder to kick. Now there is a whole new crop of methadone addicts who use heroin as a fallback.
In 1992, buprenorphine was in the experimental stage and not approved for treatment. That year, I again took up heroin after being paroled from a bank robbery conviction for which I did 12 years. My habit was spiraling out of control and the future was looking bleak.
Then a Bay Area doctor I knew, through some barely legal shenanigans, got me a prescription for buprenorphine. He wasn't sure if it would work, but thought it had potential. My desperation to kick heroin after 45 years of on-and-off use and my lack of future prospects made it worth a shot.
Only one local pharmacy handled buprenorphine at the time, dispensing it in little gelatin squares like chewing gum. The theory is that the drug goes to the same receptors in the brain as opiates do, and blocks them off.
I took the dosage, stopped shooting up heroin and felt nothing. By nothing, I mean I felt no high and no withdrawal symptoms, either. After one week my habit was gone -- without the chills, sweats, severe nausea, dry heaves, diarrhea, horrible muscle cramps, extreme anxiety and sleeplessness that characterize heroin withdrawal as the body comes back to life.
It was the first habit I had ever kicked in my long life of addiction outside of jail. The drug may have spared my life and a few banks at the same time.
Over 75 percent of the bank robbers I met in prison were heroin addicts who turned to robbing banks to feed their habits. After a successful robbery they could afford more drugs than before. So they increased their habit. That increased the horror of the prospect of withdrawal, which increased their will to rob. A vicious circle, littered with victims.
Buprenorphine's possible side effects are said to include cold and flu-like symptoms, headaches, nausea, sweating and mood swings. I did not experience any of these. If combined with alcohol, it can cause death from respiratory problems.
The one problem I did encounter was that, on my third day of buprenorphine, I decided I felt so good that I'd try to get high. When I used heroin I felt nothing. I then took twice my regular shot and still felt nothing. Buprenorphine in the system totally closes the door on opiates and makes it highly unlikely to overdose on heroin.
Today I've been clean for more than four years, and I no longer take buprenorphine.
Clinicians at Haight-Ashbury are expressing cautious optimism about the drug, noting that it doesn't work for some people and stressing that complex problems like drug addiction have no one-shot cure. Some doctors elsewhere say buprenorphine works for only a few.
But for me, buprenorphine was a miracle drug. I credit it with starting me down the path to sobriety, showing me that painless heroin withdrawal was a possibility. It helped me clear my habit, and it can't be abused because there is no high.
Buprenorphine has the potential to significantly lower the number of crimes committed by frantic heroin addicts, and could help reduce the startling number of inmates in American prisons on drug-related convictions.
Martin is co-author (with Peter Sussman) of "Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog" and has two published novels: "The Dishwasher" and "In the Hat." Martin currently lives in Hendersonville, Tenn., where he working on his third novel.