Let a Friendly Inmate Help Plan That Next Trip for You

Some states now give prisoners telemarketing jobs - especially in tourism - as money-saving measure

THINKING of traveling to Iowa in the next few weeks? Maybe a visit to the National Balloon Museum or Herbert Hoover's birthplace? When you call the state tourist hot line at 1-800-345-IOWA for a map and a guide book, listen carefully. That friendly male voice is coming to you from maximum security at the Iowa State Penitentiary.

The Hawkeye state, like a handful of other states including Arizona, Nebraska, and New Jersey, is using state prisoners on tourist hot lines to help promote tourism while cutting state expenses.

In New Jersey, as many as 40 women inmates from the maximum security Edna Mahan Correctional Facility answer thousands of calls a day on the toll-free travel and tourism line.

``I don't know where we would be without them,'' says Greg Gilstrap, tourism director for Arizona, referring to the six women inmates in blue jeans and blue T-shirts who arrive each morning at the state tourism office in Phoenix. They answer local tourist calls and do office work.

``We would probably utilize more [inmates] if we had more office space,'' says Mr. Gilstrap. At the end of the work day the inmates are returned to the prison.

Using prison inmates for cheap labor is nothing new for states. ``At the turn of the century, much of the barbed-wire industry came from Minnesota prisons, and Texas inmates were contracted out to cotton field owners,'' says Jerome Miller, head of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va.

Oregon used prison inmates to answer tourism information lines over the last three years and then disconnected in January of this year, indicating some difficulties in the levels of enthusiasm from inmates.

``The inmates weren't as responsive as we needed them to be,'' says Jim Cunningham, from the Oregon Tourism Division, ``so we contracted with a private company that now provides us with broader services, and is 100 percent better.''

According to the United States Justice Department, some 20 states now employ inmates to do work such as making license plates, furniture, and clothes. ``It's too soon to tell how far telemarketing will spread in prisons,'' says Mr. Miller. ``Certainly something more will have to be done if the Clinton crime bill passes. We project a prison population of 7 million after the turn of the century.''

In Iowa, a cellblock at the men's prison at Fort Madison was remodeled and the cells were turned into telemarketing stations. ``It's a good assignment for the inmates,'' says Nancy Landess, marketing manager for Iowa's Tourism Division in Des Moines. ``They have always had jobs like making furniture, and now they can move into the service industry and work with computers.''

Inmates in Iowa can earn between 32 to 72 cents an hour, which is better pay than most prison jobs offer. The inmates receive training in phone courtesy, tourism attractions throughout the state, and how to operate computers. At the height of the tourist season, inmates handle up to 1,200 calls a day and send out packets of tourist information.

One inmate on the hot line, after answering a question about skiing in Iowa, says, ``This works out pretty well for me. It's much better than lifting weights and being miserable all day long.''

In Arizona, Gilstrap says it is ``refreshing'' to see how pleased the inmates are with their opportunity. ``Given the fact that their alternative is cleaning up the prison grounds for about 3 cents an hour, they tend to be very appreciative,'' he says.

``My understanding is that there has been substantial savings for the state,'' says Ron Welder, Correctional Services Manager for the Iowa State Penitentiary, ``and the state department of transportation is thinking of using inmates to answer an 800 line for the most asked questions like, when is the license bureau open?''

Another state official says, ``If we had used a private telemarketer, it might have cost the state about $200,000 more.''

``We've had some problems,'' says Mr. Welder, ``like inmates sending out additional information or trying to contact the person that called, and some inmates can't get used to answering phones. But the problems have been minor.''

In Iowa the phone calls are monitored by supervisors who move around the phone stations listening to the conversations.

``Eventually what led to the decline of using prisoners for outside labor,'' says Mr. Miller, ``were abuses and strong opposition from unions.''

AT&T used prison inmates, through a contractor, in several states as telemarketers for two years, but ended the practice in 1993 when criticism mounted from unions and telemarketing firms.

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