Dean Williams, the new head of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, says he wants to bring a “culture change” to prisons so that the state’s 20,000-plus inmates have a more normal human existence.
To that end, the state DOC this month lifted its ban on inmates receiving greeting cards, drawings and certain other personalized forms of correspondence from the outside world. That change was driven by Tiffany McCoy, an inmate at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility off Havana Street in northeast Denver. She filed a grievance because cards from her family and friends were being withheld.
“Cards mean everything to us. First, it’s that our family went and picked the card. Went to the store and thought about us and our favorite colors. They had to go buy the stamp, so it took some energy and effort from them,” said McCoy, 29, who’s been locked up since she was 19. She was convicted of aggravated robbery in 2009 and sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Previously, inmates were either outright denied these pieces of mail or handed black and white photocopies, primarily because the originals occasionally contained drugs. That she and others can now get original pieces instead of photocopies is “a big deal,” McCoy said.
“My family did not touch the photocopies,” McCoy said. “That’s not what my grandmother went and bought and touched and held. The card might smell like her. It’s knowing that it’s something she touched.”
Williams, who sat next to McCoy in a conference room in the prison during a half-hour interview with The Independent, applauded McCoy’s leadership on this issue. He also admitted that the prospect of McCoy suing the DOC for withholding her mail contributed to the decision to lift the ban.
“It caused us to pause, which I think is a good thing,” Williams said of McCoy’s push, which was encouraged by attorneys at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Civil Rights Clinic. Among other things giving Williams pause these days is the fact that inmates have to pay significant sums to make phone calls and can’t video-chat with loved ones. He also said he hopes the DOC can get to the point of letting certain minimum-security inmates pick their own clothes and have comfier furniture.
Some of those changes could happen quickly. He’s the head of the department and there’s little stopping him from, say, implementing his clothing and furniture changes. Those kinds of moves, like the lift on the card ban, are free or low-cost, and require relatively little coordination.
Other changes, like making phone calls free, would require Colorado to fundamentally shift away from a profit-making venture that is ubiquitous in prisons across the country.
A big business
In Colorado and elsewhere, prison and jail inmates must almost always pay to make phone calls. Beyond the challenge of competing with other inmates for phone time, they must often come up with more money than many can afford. The rate in Colorado’s DOC is 12 cents per minute, which can be expensive for an inmate who may have just a few dollars. Minimum-wage laws don’t apply in the DOC, so even those working jobs in prison can earn pennies per day for hours of labor, and they often have to save it for commissary expenses.
McCoy explained the effect of this expense on herself and other inmates.
“Some people in here, their families can’t pay for phone calls,” she said. “Some people in here live off state pay, $3 a month, $9 a month, $16 a month. And it’s hard to juggle ‘I need shampoo and conditioner’ and ‘I need to call my daughter.’
“There’s family that I don’t talk to” because of the cost of the calls,” McCoy continued. “I have brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles that I just don’t talk to. I get messages from my other family: ‘She’s doing good,’ or ‘she had a baby.’
“Or I’ll wait to call my grandmother on Thanksgiving because lots of my family is there so that’s when I get to talk to them. I talk to certain people once a year. If calls were free, I’d have a lot more family connection, I’d know a lot more. I might have — I don’t know, I might feel like I have more options when I get out.”
Williams, who’s just four months into the job and who used to run Alaska’s DOC, said he is completely supportive of changing this structure.
“The issue with phones, and I want to be careful about my answer with this — I wish, in an ideal world, it would be less than 12 cents, and it would be a lot less, because I think family contact and family visitation is huge,” Williams said.
He added, “I wish it would be free.”
Global Tel*Link (GTL) Corporation, based in Virginia, pays Colorado $800,000 per year for exclusive rights to run the prison phone program, according to records provided by the DOC.
GTL, which bills itself as a “discount jail calls and postcards” provider, collects all profits from the 12-cents-a-minute plan across all Colorado prisons. A spokeswoman for the DOC said she was not immediately able to locate numbers to show just how much GTL pulls in each year from this arrangement, and the company did not respond to a call Thursday.
New York City recently took the historic step of making phone calls free for people incarcerated at Rikers Island. Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which advocates for the elimination of criminal fines and fees, was among those pushing for this change.
Weiss said that even if Colorado had to spend $20 million to foot the bill for inmates’ calls — that amount, likely higher than the actual figure, would be 0.0007 percent of the state budget — the investment would be well worth it.
“In the overall budget of Colorado, that’s a rounding error,” she said, “and the damage that we’re causing by making it impossible for poor people who are incarcerated to stay in touch with their families is much greater than that.”
“A considerable security issue”
GTL and similar providers around the country advertise their service as a way to maintain security within prisons. Calls are recorded and this surveillance gives officials like Williams some extra assurance, he said, that “bad actors” having “nefarious” conversations will be caught. Advocates like Weiss say this surveillance is a violation of privacy rights.
There were security concerns with the greeting cards, too. Williams said they were only banned in the first place because senders were in some cases inserting narcotics in them. The agreement Williams reached with McCoy and the University of Denver clinic gives the DOC the right to deny personal mail to anyone found to be trafficking drugs through the mail.
“Yeah, it’s a problem and yeah, I don’t want drugs trafficked in,” Williams said. “But I also don’t want … the ubiquitous ban on any greeting cards.
“When you’re in prison, it’s a pretty stark world. Getting mail and getting things like that really means something and it’s a way of maintaining connection.”
This is one of the arguments made by advocates for free phone calls.
Williams said he wouldn’t want to do away with the surveillance aspect of the phone program.
“There is a considerable security issue with phone traffic that we have to take seriously,” he said.
Asked whether he’d support a program that maintains surveillance without charging inmates, he said yes, but that “it is a budget decision.”
“Could we pay for (calls)? Yeah, we could, but the reality is that it would be a significant budgetary item for us to pay for that. We could do this as a state if we wanted to fund all that.”
He said he’d welcome an effort by the legislature to boost DOC funding to pay for calls. He could, of course, rearrange his department’s funds to make that change now. But, he said, that would require other priorities to be downgraded, and he did not appear willing to take that step.
By phone Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis said he supports programs that allow certain inmates — particularly those close to their release dates — to receive voicemail and make free phone calls, “so that they can line up work and job opportunities.”
“The ability to make phone calls is certainly part of a successful transition,” said Polis, who appointed Williams.
Polis declined to directly answer when asked if he wants to make phone calls free across the state prison system.
But with the governor’s blessing, Williams said he’s committed to making sweeping changes as part of a general effort to make prison less alienating and dehumanizing for inmates — most of whom, sooner or later, will be released. For one, Williams said he’s in talks now with a contractor to bring “video visitation” to Colorado prisons. This would allow people to video-chat with friends and family on the outside — something inmates with out-of-state loved ones particularly desire. The service, Williams said, would likely cost inmates more than the 12-cent rate they pay for calls now.
Williams also said he’s open to forming inmate advisory committees in prisons as a way to solicit feedback and ideas on how to improve the living experience inside Colorado corrections facilities. He was particularly engaged when McCoy talked about a program she and other inmates hope to launch, tentatively called VOICES: Vigilant Offenders Initiating, Creating and Enhancing Solutions.
McCoy said she’s encouraged that the DOC lifted the card ban in large part because of her advocacy. Through VOICES — or whatever the program might be called — and with a new department chief talking big on reform, there could be more on the way.
“This mattered,” McCoy said of the card policy. “Something changed. It gave me hope. Now I’m going to fight to get out of here.”