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Steep phone rates cut off youth offenders from home

by Dana Wilson Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 at 7:27 AM

It’s not about rehabilitating juvenile delinquents! It’s about shaking down the kids parents for money!

His year in youth prison is up, but Burt Sharpe’s parents are still paying for the collect phone calls he made home while incarcerated.

Ralph and Dorothy Sharpe have struggled to cover the bills for ,000 worth of conversations with their son, who was released last month from the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

The Stark County family didn’t realize the cost of Burt’s twice-daily calls until an 0 phone bill arrived for the first month.

"It was something that I needed, to be able to talk to my family, to be able to get through my day-to-day life there," Burt said.

Complaints about the state’s prisonphone system are common among parents of incarcerated children, advocates say.

The cost creates a barrier for youths trying to stay connected, said Kim Brooks Tandy, director of the Children’s Law Center, an advocacy group in Covington, Ky.

"These aren’t adults, these are kids, and they are going to get out someday and go back to their families," Tandy said. "We’re essentially cutting them off from that contact."

Inmates housed in the state’s eight juvenile lockups can only make collect calls through the prison-system telephone carrier.

Surcharges range from .75 to .50, with per-minute costs billed at 19 cents to 36 cents for calls within Ohio.

Prepaid rates are offered at a 20 percent discount, but they still cost more than most prepaid phone cards sold commercially. Inmates are not permitted to use calling cards because Youth Services doesn’t have the staff or resources to monitor their use, said Andrea Kruse, department spokeswoman.

The state receives a 49.5 percent commission annually through its contract with Verizon Business, which acquired the former MCI. So far this year, Youth Services has received nearly 7,000 in commissions, Kruse said.

Proceeds go into a fund used by institutions for "quality of life" services, such as buying postage stamps and school supplies and paying for collegeentrance tests and apartment rent upon release.

"The department works very hard to make sure that the rates of those phone calls are something that isn’t too harsh on the family," Kruse said. "We work very hard to get the lowest rate possible."

Some parents disagree.

It’s cheaper for Maria Santiago, of Cleveland, to take collect calls from relatives in Puerto Rico than it is for her 16-year-old son to call from inside the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility.

At first, her son was angry when she wouldn’t sign up for a prepaid plan offered by Youth Services.

"He was like, ‘So-and-so’s mom lets him call,’ " Santiago said. "It puts parents in a tough position."

Between January and April of this year, 59 phone-related grievances were filed with Youth Services by incarcerated youths, according to a report issued in August by the state legislature’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.

The committee, which also heard the Sharpes’ concerns, will continue to raise questions on the issue if warranted, executive director Shirley Popesaid.

"Those who have complaints should be vocal," Pope said. "If they think it’s outrageous, they need to keep bringing it to people’s attention."

The state’s youngest felons, ages 10 to 21, often serve time far from home. Many parents can’t afford to visit, much less pay for expensive phone calls.

Some families give up on maintaining contact because it’s too hard, said Jill Beeler, an assistant state public defender.

"What ends up happening is these parents get these large phone bills and they can’t pay them, so the phone company will put a block on their phone," Beeler said. "It’s very hard to maintain contact when it should be something that’s promoted, something that’s a piece of rehabilitation."

Phone use is considered a privilege and is used as an incentive for good behavior in some Youth Services facilities, Kruse said.

Calls to attorneys are permitted upon request, and inmates are allowed incoming calls during family emergencies, department records show.

In some cases, social workers help inmates make calls to family members for free.

Youth Services officials also encourage other forms of communication, such as letters.

But a letter isn’t as immediate or reassuring as the voice of a loved one, said Deanna Wilkinson, associate professor of child development and family science at Ohio State University.

Talking to someone on the outside is an outlet that factors into preventing future problems, said Wilkinson, whose research includes adolescent aggression and violence.

"If their families are telling them that they can’t afford to do it, a lot of them will internalize that they just don’t care," Wilkinson said.

During his prison stay for a sex crime, Burt Sharpe offered to send his parents his 50-centan-hour wages from his job as a library aide to help cover phone bills.

Mrs. Sharpe told him to keep it. She didn’t want her son to worry about the cost.

She doesn’t think the government should have to foot the bill for every call, but she said the state could make it easier for parents to communicate with their children.

dwilson@dispatch.com

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