Prison Call Centers May Re-Launch in Canada

By Nicole Davis

The average citizen doesn’t want to chat with convicted felons. So the idea that prisoners might call our homes to ask us questions about which laundry detergent we prefer makes some of us ask, “Why let people like that phone me? Why should I have to talk to them?”

What many people don’t know, however, is that job-training programs such as prison call centers are proven to help keep prisoners from re-offending after they are released and, in Canada, inmates working in call centers never handle personal information.

Fenbrook Medium Security Institution sets the standard for future prison call centers in Canada. “We are touted as the benchmark,” said Assistant Warden Willie Gladu. Yet all Canadian prison call centers, including Fenbrook, were temporarily shut down on October 18, after concerns were raised by the National Association of Market Researchers about the wisdom and appropriateness of putting inmates on the phones. Corrections staff at two other prisons, Pittsburg Institution and Westmoreland Institution, declined to answer any questions concerning their call centers, but Gladu is optimistic that all three centers will reopen soon, and he is not alone.

Ellen Henderson, director of policy and regulatory affairs at Correction Canada (Corcan), which employs federal inmates, agrees with Gladu. “These are not major problems, just concerns that are being voiced,” she said. Michelle Pilon-Antilli, director of media relations at Corrections Canada, added that the closures were only “precautionary measures.”

Before the shutdown, Fenbrook employed 51 inmates in its call center, and ran three other centers outside the prison. All three of the Canadian call centers had close partnerships with private sector companies who supplied the phone numbers and questions to be asked.

“We supply the offenders and they pay the offenders,” said Gladu. The centers only deal with market research, and the inmates gather no personal information. The prisons are determined not to accept surveys or marketing contracts that require prisoners to collect personal information, so as not to tempt the inmates or worry the public. Calls are dialed by a computer and all the inmate has is a telephone headset, a computer screen, and a keyboard to type in responses. Every call is monitored and staff members patrol the floor to help inmates with problems.

Some problems include inmates wandering from the prescribed script or having inadequate recording skills. If an inmate strays from the script, the survey is stopped and the inmate is asked why he strayed. “It is a potential, but we monitor,” said Gladu. The majority of problems are typing-related. Many inmates have never worked with computers before and have poor typing skills. They must pass a course in typing to continue working in the call center.

Not every prisoner is able to work in a call center. Inmates convicted of fraud are rejected based upon their crime. As Gladu pointed out, there are many steps to follow to apply for a position. Inmates must first apply in writing, and the applications are forwarded to a security staff that then sends them to the employment coordinator. The employment coordinator may or may not decide to proceed with the applications.

If the application is accepted, the call center supervisor then interviews the inmate. The entire application then goes to the program board of six staff members who ultimately decide if the applicant should work in the call center or not.

The CORCAN concept seems to be working. Along with the call centers, CORCAN is responsible for all prison employment programs, and has seen the recidivism rate drop and prisoner moral increase. CORCAN employs more than 5,000 offenders still in prison and 1,900 in communities. CORCAN claims that there was a 27.8% reduction in re-offences in 1996 in 52 paroled offenders who participated in CORCAN, compared to 19.2% one and a half years earlier.

Morale is also affected, and Henderson said she has seen it for herself. “Men have broken down and cried because they find they are finally good at something,” she said. Men are trained and educated to work. If an inmate wants to work in a call center, or any other job in prison, he must receive education beforehand.

When inmates are accepted as CORCAN trainees, they learn skills that can be useful in the workplace. They also learn the skills necessary to be a good worker, from commitment to responsibility to punctuality. Pilon-Antilli also said the program helps inmates be self-sufficient.

CORCAN wants to train inmates for jobs when they are paroled, and the program offers men in call centers the chance to work in call centers outside of prison. In Fenbrook alone, 16 inmates have received their certificates and of that group, three now have jobs. Some are still in jail, but it may give them a better outlook on the future if they have a certificate in their pocket telling them they can do a professional job.

Prisoners who have a future ahead of them — one that includes a possible job opportunity – may be much less likely to re-offend. They are trying to turn their lives around and have a better chance in a program like CORCAN than they do sitting in their cells.

Many experts in the field have faith in the program and believe that the call centers will be reinstated soon. Until then, Gladu said, “We wait.”

[From Connection MagazineMay 2003]

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