Prisoners take calls to help tourists escape - to Idaho. Telemarketing trains inmates and relieves overloaded agency

For the past year, inmates at Idaho's state prison have been talking with outsiders who want help in escape planning. The prisoners answer calls to a toll-free telephone number, featured in the state's nationwide travel and tourism promotions. Hooked by advertising slogans such as ``Idaho: The Great Getaway,'' callers chat with the inmates and ask for brochures and information about rafting on the Salmon River, or fly-fishing on the Henry's Fork.

Prisoners, state travel officials, and managers for Correctional Industries - a state agency that runs solely on the sales of prisoner-produced goods and services - regard the program as a huge success, and a blueprint for the future.

``One day you'll call for a Time magazine subscription and reach a room full of inmates instead of pretty girls,'' says Mel Johnson, deputy director of Correctional Industries.

Sales were $2.7 million in fiscal 1987 and are projected at $3.2 million in 1988. Mr. Johnson believes the organization hasn't scratched the surface of potential for telemarketing sales.

In 1987 the inmates handled 118,000 phone and mail inquiries from a small, glass-enclosed office on the prison grounds. The 1988 projection is for 170,000 information requests.

Most inquiries are brief conversations during which an inmate types the caller's name, address, and phone number on a computer terminal. The computer prints a label that goes to an adjacent mail room, where it's stuck on an envelope stuffed with glossy travel brochures. Employees sort the envelopes by ZIP code and prepare them for pickup by postal workers.

``If I was handling this on the outside, I wouldn't change a thing,'' said a 40-year-old inmate named Ray, a former air-traffic controller who now earns $1 per hour as lead man of a five-worker telemarketing staff.

The work used to be handled by Idaho Commerce Department clerical employees who had other office duties. The result was chaos.

``Before this program it could take us a month to process a request,'' said Betsy Gabel, a tourism promotion specialist who helped shape the telemarketing effort for the Commerce Department.

Before they switched to the prison program, state travel officials shopped around for a civilian telemarketing firm to give them relief. No one could provide the service they wanted, says Ms. Gabel, though a Salt Lake City firm offered to design a suitable program.

``I would estimate that would cost us $1.50 per inquiry,'' she said. ``This costs us 16 cents.''

In the pecking order of prison jobs, telemarketing ranks near the top in prestige.

``It keeps you on an even keel by dealing with people on the outside,'' said inmate Ray. ``To me, that puts this job above all the others out here.'' Besides, only employees in the prison's stonecutting shop earn more than Ray.

The inmates ``take a sense of pride that they're helping the state, and they're being taught - even subconsciously - good work habits,'' Johnson says.

About a third of the prison's inmates, almost 200, are employed by Correctional Industries. In addition to the traditional license-plate and highway-sign shops, Correctional Industries shops also do such things as stonecutting, metal fabrication, furniture building, and, now, telemarketing.

Idaho's telemarketing program is not original, though it is the only inmate-operated tourism promotion program. California Youth Authority inmates operate a Trans World Airlines flight reservations center in Camarillo, Calif.; and the Best Western Motel chain's toll-free reservation line rings in a women's prison in Phoenix.

Critics of such programs worry that criminals behind bars will pass reservation information to accomplices outside the walls, who can target the homes of travelers. That won't happen with Idaho's telemarketing program, Johnson said.``We're not a reservations system, so we never get that information,'' he said.

There are other safeguards. Civilian supervisors frequently monitor the calls. And when Idaho tourism and corrections officials travel outside the state, they call to check on inmates' performance.

The Commerce Department insists that phone operators not disclose to callers that they are convicts. If a caller asks, the prisoners just say they are employed by a telemarketing company and refer persistent requests to the department.

State tourism officials are proud of the program and the workers.

``We're very pleased with their recognition of consumer needs,'' Gabel said. ``In fact, there are times when they know more about parts of Idaho than we do.''

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