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Board approves installation of telephone system for TDCJ offenders

closeup of payphoneIn August, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice answered a call for pay phones in Texas’ prison facilities by awarding a contract to a Kansas-based communications company for the installation and operation of a sophisticated and secure offender telephone system that will provide revenue to a state fund for compensating crime victims.

“We hope to implement the finest phone system in the nation,” Board Chairman Oliver Bell said following the awarding of the seven-year contract to Embarq, a company that operates telephone systems within prisons in five other states… “Properly implemented, this new system will be a national model.”

Texas is the last state to put pay phones in its prison facilities for regular offender use. Legislation passed in 2007 called for TDCJ to award a contract for the installation of the telephone system by September of this year. Fourteen TDCJ staff members representing seven different departments reviewed proposals from three bidders for the telephone system contract. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ron Steffa said the Embarq bid was recommended primarily because it was “technically superior” to the others and offered the best overall value for the state.

“Historically, there have been many concerns about the implementation and impact of such a program in Texas,” Chairman Bell said… “The benefit of going last is that we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us.”

The pay phones will be installed in designated areas within the state’s prison facilities over 7 1/2 months at a ratio no greater than 30 eligible offenders per telephone. Once installed, eligible offenders will be allowed up to 120 minutes of phone time a month, with no one call lasting more than 15 minutes. Offenders will be limited to calling friends and family members who appear on his or her approved list of visitors. No calls to victims or their families will be permitted and all calls will be digitally recorded. Some offenders will not have access to the telephone system because of disciplinary problems, gang affiliations, or because they are on death row.

Eligible offenders and their family will be able to prepay for telephone calls at rates of 23 cents per minute in-state and 39 cents out-of-state. Collect calls placed within the state will cost 26 cents per minute, while out-of-state collect calls will be billed at a rate of 43 cents per minute. No international calls or calls to cell phones will be allowed.

Under the terms of the contract, the state will receive 40 percent of the gross billable revenue. The first $10 million received by the state will be deposited in the Crime Victim Compensation Fund, while all revenue beyond that will be split evenly between that fund and the state’s general revenue fund.

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Gatesville Unit renamed in honor of past TBCJ chairman Christina Melton Crain

When established in 1980, the Gatesville Unit was named for its location on the map. The female facility is now named for a woman whose leadership as chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) helped map the future of TDCJ.
aerial photo of Crain Unit
Christina Melton Crain Unit

In August, members of the TBCJ voted unanimously during their regular meeting in Austin to rename the Gatesville Unit for Christina Melton Crain of Dallas.

“I am both honored and humbled to have my name associated with a TDCJ facility where so many people work so hard to change lives and safeguard the public,” Crain said. “Their devotion makes me proud to be part of the TDCJ family.”

Crain, an attorney, was appointed to the nine-member oversight board in 2001 and was the first woman to be named its chairman in 2003. As chairman, she spearheaded the implementation of several initiatives, including the GO KIDS and Amachi Texas programs that address the needs of children with incarcerated parents in an effort to break the intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration. She was also a strong advocate of increasing reentry efforts and strengthening community supervision.

“She definitely is very passionate about this agency, and, truly, this agency is a beneficiary of that passion,” said TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston.

Special guests Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Rep. Jerry Madden of Richardson, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, also spoke highly of Crain’s efforts during her seven years on the board.

“It’s amazing what you can get done if you get everybody focused on putting Texas first,” Lt. Gov. Dewhurst said. “And that’s what Christina did. She put Texas first, making sure that the system protected all of us.”

“I’ve never had a greater respect for any person on any board than that I have for Christina Crain,” Rep. Madden added.

Her successor as TBCJ chairman, Oliver Bell of Austin, called Crain “a leader among leaders.”

“To put it simply, you can say we love her,” said Bell, who presented Crain with a board resolution commending her service along with a gavel and striker to symbolize her five years as chairman.

President George W. Bush also congratulated Crain in a letter read by Bell during the board meeting.

“As board chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, you have helped strengthen our free and democratic society through your efforts to safeguard our community and to promote high standards in the field of criminal justice,” the president said. “Your good work to enforce our laws has helped ensure the safety of our citizens and our neighbors. I appreciate your integrity, professionalism, and devotion to the great state of Texas and our nation. Your commitment to excellence is an inspiration to others and reflects the spirit of America.”

Crain said she has long thought of TDCJ and its employees as part of her family.

“I’ve said many, many times that you’re like extended family, and I truly believe that and will continue to,” she said. “You don’t spend seven years of your life with a group of people and doing what we do here in this agency without feeling that way. And it’s because of the quality of people in this agency that I can say that.”

Indeed, Crain said her interaction with TDCJ employees during her years on the board forever changed her.

“If any one ever tells you that you can’t go to prison and be changed, please tell them that they’re wrong,” she said. “And the reason I say that is because I have been changed by going to prison. There are many, many ways that this agency and my interaction with each and everyone of you over the last seven years has changed me in ways that I can’t even tell you. But it’s all wonderful. I’m just so thankful and honored to have been a part of this group. And for all what you have given me the past seven years, I hope have given you a portion of that.”

The Crain Unit is a former state school for boys that now houses approximately 2,000 female offenders of all custody levels. The unit employs approximately 750, including about 540 correctional officers.

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