Phone Calls of Shame


When I found out Vince would be going to prison, I thought the obvious way to avoid the dreaded collect calls would be to move to another country.

The calls go like this: An unknown number shows up on my phone. When I answer, a cheery computerized female voice begins, “You have a collect call from…” then my son’s voice would interject his name, “Vince.” Then a different, condemning, shaming voice would say, “…an inmate in the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center,” or “Woodbury Workhouse,” or “Crow Wing County Jail,” or wherever he was.

OK, you might not hear the shaming tone but I do.

The cheerful voice returns and informs me that I will be charged $9.99 for 10 minutes, that the call will be monitored, and that this “service” is provided by Prison Corporation of America. As if it was some patriotic public service, not a scam to rake in billions from a (literally) captive audience and their desperate loved ones. “To accept this call, press 1. To refuse this call, press 2. To permanently block calls from this number, press 3.”

Vince hadn’t been incarcerated for over 10 years, he had reminded me a few months before. While in his late teens and early 20s, he had been locked up multiple times so that’s how I knew what to expect with the phone calls. But the earlier experiences had been short stints for minor offenses, and had come from jails. Now he was looking at up to 11 years in a prison. A prison. That sounded so much worse than a “jail.” My expectations had been steadily going downhill for years, but this was different, big.

He hadn’t been incarcerated for 10 years, but he had hit the skids every couple of years. The last time, about two years earlier, he had lost his job and, since he lived so close to the edge of subsistence, quickly lost his apartment and all his possessions—right down to his underwear and toothbrush.

Fortunately, I had been 9,000 miles away, working for a human rights organization in Nairobi, Kenya. I was concerned about him, but there was nothing I could do—and being surrounded by people who were risking their lives by confronting corrupt police, or organizing LGBT activists, or just trying to avoid being kidnapped by El Shabab on their way home from work, put things in perspective.

So this time, I immediately applied for a job in Turkey with an organization based in Los Angeles. I figured if I played my cards right I could work in Turkey for four years, travel all over Europe and Asia from there and send Vince a lot of cool postcards, then return to work in L.A. I had it all figured out.

So when I got back to my desk after a meeting and saw I had a call from an L.A. number, I thought “Hurrah!” it was them calling for an interview. For a moment I thought things would actually pan out as I had planned. I was floating toward the emergency exit.

But instead it was “You have a collect call from…”

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