Many people don't know that under the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, slavery was ended for all but the "duly convicted" - which makes prisoners slaves of the state. Not that the Televerde women ever complain of being treated or regarded as slaves by their employer. Just don't be fooled by this Forbes story into thinking the ADC has rehabilitative and vocational programming going on. They just have for-profit businesses in there (including their own spin-off) to access an easily-exploited cheap labor pool from which they can be pretty selective, because there are relatively few good jobs compared to the number of prisoners the state has. Most other jobs pay pennies an hour, and there's even competition for them. If you have nothing and your toothpaste costs $3.00, you learn to appreciate a raise from ten cents an hour to a whole quarter - before taxes and whatever else the state wants out of you. That means you can get extra stamps or a candy bar with your store order, or send a birthday card to your child.
Unfortunately, the Televerde woman are being prepared for careers in telemarketing, an industry infamous for abusing employees - many of whom are ex-felons who can't get better jobs because of their records. It's one of the few industries that will hire them, and only the best can survive at that kind of work; seldom is there ever health insurance or other benefits that go with it, and it's precarious to live on commission. I don't know of any union organizing in the business - if the company goes under or is run by serious criminals, the employees get really screwed.
That's been happening a lot out here lately. Most recently in Phoenix a major company laid off over 1,000 workers because the heads of the company were defrauding both employees and customers. People on probation or parole can end up being revoked and jailed with a sudden income loss like that - some did, because the company promised and failed to make their restitution payments to the courts. So, training in telemarketing does not necessarily open the doors to a bright career once one has finished serving her time - but it does afford a way to survive until something better comes along. And as the article points out, having employment in prison where one is treated with dignity and respect does seem to have an effect on reducing recidivism - too bad prisoners aren't treated so well in the context of their other jobs or their daily lives in prison, or we might see even less in the way of repeat offenders.
Anyway, this is an interesting story worth reading if you're curious about this aspect of life at Perryville prison but don't want to have to experience it firsthand. Just remember as you read about how great the place is that someone's making a lot of money off the work these women do for minimum wage - this is a business venture, not an altruistic one. That's why it's being written up in Forbes...
Finally, regarding the closing remarks made about prison being the "best thing that ever happened" to these women - keep in mind that most women in prison have been physically or sexually abused before they got there - they've had hard lives. I suspect that if they thought more about it they might have said that Televerde was the best thing about that horrible place, because it helped them regain or build their competencies and their sense of dignity and responsibility. It's not necessary to put people into prison in order to do that. It's also a lot cheaper not to. Such a shame that we've gutted our job training and opportunities for higher education in Arizona in order to increase the capacities of our prisons - we could have been sending some of those women to college for what we paid to incarcerate them for non-violent crimes...
Andria Goodwin is in her cubicle. She has her headset on and is in the middle of trying to sell an indifferent manager at a big insurance company on the idea of buying a very expensive database software package. He wants to back out: "This sounds like a conversation for our it staff." Goodwin has heard that one before. "Why? You'll be the one using this stuff," she says in a matter-of-fact tone.
He pauses, then gives in. He agrees to a follow-up call the next week. Goodwin beams, knowing she converted a cold call into a solid lead. "If you follow a script, you'll fail every time," she says.
At the end of her shift Goodwin, 38, will head back to her cell block at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville, 25 miles west of Phoenix. She's almost done serving her five-year sentence for fraud.
Goodwin's story is typical among the former drug dealers, prostitutes, scammers and murderers at Perryville. Addicted to crystal meth, she and her husband grabbed credit card offers out of mailboxes, then set up bogus accounts. Her husband is in prison. Her older son was sent to her parents' house, the younger one to live with a minister. "I lost everything," she says.
But Goodwin clawed her way back toward a semblance of a respectable life and had a job waiting for her upon her release in April, thanks to a company called Televerde, which operates four call centers at Perryville. Televerde is staffed by 250 "ladies," as they proudly prefer to be called, who show up for their shifts in bright orange jumpsuits. They submit to strip searches and are sometimes heckled by the guards, but once they've put on that headset, these women are in another world. "You get your dignity back," says Goodwin, who also had $8,000 in savings waiting for her on the other side.
The privately held Televerde is run by James Hooker, 60, a corporate outcast who failed to fit in with any organization he couldn't run himself. The Perryville operation, when he came across it in 1995 (then run out of a converted motel in Phoenix), became his calling and his own form of business rehab.
Televerde generated $12.1 million in revenue last year and is growing profitably. Hooker's customers are some of the biggest names in tech:
Hooker is proud of his accomplishment but has a good reason not to be too boastful. Today's high unemployment levels could make the hiring of criminals something of a moral outrage when law-abiding citizens can't get jobs. Unicor, a 76-year-old organization that employs 1,100 federal prisoners in customer service call centers, shuns publicity.
There have been disasters with prison telesales programs. In 1998 an imprisoned serial rapist in Washington State was caught sending suggestive notes to callers who were giving their addresses to request information about state parks. David Fathi, who runs the American Civil Liberties Union's prison project, warns of another danger: "There's real opportunity for exploitation here. They can't unionize. We don't want a situation where business has an interest in increasing the prison population."
Hooker's answer: "It is utter bull to say I'm taking jobs away from citizens. I create many more jobs on the outside than I give to prisoners, and I save society millions in reconvictions that would otherwise happen."
Televerde workers earn the federal minimum wage, $7.25, which is much better than the 35 cents an hour they might get in the prison laundry. A third of that pay covers a portion of room and board; the rest is theirs, after state taxes and other deductions. The average Televerde hire walks out of prison with $15,000 in savings; one left prison with $25,000. Many pay off obligations, which can include child support and mean they keep custody of their children while incarcerated.
"This world has it upside down on prisoners," says Hooker. "We kick them in, treat them like savages, then kick them out and expect them not to come back. But they do, again and again. And every time we pay for it."
Of Televerde's out-of-prison alumni, 11% have gone back to the slammer over the last 14 years. Nationally, 40% of female felons return within just three years, according to a 1994 study on recidivism (the most recent; the Department of Justice does not believe that figure has changed much since).
One Televerde alumna got her M.B.A. at Arizona State University and now heads sales operations at Televerde's Phoenix headquarters. Another runs a foster child placement program in Canada. A third is a manager at a substance abuse clinic in Tucson who has hired two other alumni. Hooker hires a quarter of his inmate staffers once they leave Perryville for civilian jobs at the company.
Hooker flunked out of Washington & Lee University as a senior because he was distracted by "poker, bridge and a little booze." After a stint studying language in the Army, he returned, graduated and got his M.B.A. at American University in 1977. He then took a sales job at IBM, envisioning he would someday run the place.
IBM assigned him to Brooklyn, and though he got people to buy, they rarely passed credit checks. Hooker grew frustrated and left to join a former colleague who had launched a software reselling business. Soon after, he realized he didn't like working for that guy, either. "Some might say I am not the best team player," he admits.
He launched his own computer leasing firm and six years later sold it to Pacific Corp. for $3.5 million in 1986, pocketing $2 million. He stayed on, moving to Phoenix when Pacific Corp.'s computer financing division was merged with one at Bell Atlantic. Again he thought he would run the thing (he headed sales), but the board didn't share his vision. He lobbied for a move into reselling; the board disagreed. He was a thorn in their side, alternately sarcastic and sulky at meetings. He quit to play bridge.
In 1995 a buddy told him to check out a six-person call center running out of an air-conditioned trailer at a minimum security prison. There were no paying customers, only a barter deal with the Arizona Software Association. "I thought I would just put a little money in and help with strategy from afar. Then I fell in love with the idea," says Hooker. He found that he could play the role of teacher to a willing audience. "Salespeople get complacent. They prefer farming to hunting. In these women I saw an eagerness I hadn't seen anywhere else."
He also found his chance to finally be in charge. Televerde's founder ran a church charity that gave clothing and gifts to released prisoners. He was coordinating logistics with a soon-to-be-released Televerde employee and a guard overheard. The prison's internal investigations unit suggested this could be construed as a felony and barred the guy from the prison. "He was mixing missions, which you can't do here," says Hooker. That's when he took over.
He won dot-com and Y2k business, but Televerde was a moneyloser for four years. Hooker desperately threw money at it. He several times called on a college buddy who had been a successful entrepreneur, asking for several hundred thousand dollars. That cost him a third of the company. His 82-year-old mother lent him $250,000. He sold two rental properties in New Jersey and refinanced his Phoenix home.
Early on prison managers insisted that Televerde shut down twice daily during business hours for security head counts. Hooker pushed back, holding hundreds of meetings to get the prison to work with Televerde. Now Televerde does the counts.
Keeping Televerde going inside the state system has been an exercise in patience. He knew abrasiveness could cost him the business and so he went in offering help and cooperation. "I've had to bite my tongue a hundred times in this job, like never before," he says.
Hooker did most of the training early on. In one session, which he dubs a "mini-M.B.A.," an inmate was frustrated. "I'm not smart enough for this stuff," she lamented. He asked what she did prior to prison: drug dealing. "Then you can definitely understand this," he said, and spent the rest of the class modeling a drug operation with financial terminology.
Arizona's corrections department vets potential job applicants; they must have a high school degree (which many complete in prison) and a record of decent behavior. Six weeks of training wear away the foul speech, double negatives and incorrect tenses. Current inmate workers hire new ones, staff projects, manage relations with customers and fine-tune Televerde's approach to lead generation. "I trust them to run big parts of this business, and I've found they're up to the task. These women are 50 times more motivated than someone on the outside," Hooker says.
Craig Burbidge, a vice president at Hitachi Consulting, recently did a side-by-side comparison of Televerde and a rival for a 90-day stretch. Both firms had one project coordinator overseeing a calling agent selling customer relations software to medium-size businesses. Televerde delivered five times as many leads as the other, and the leads were better. Burbidge attributes this to persistence.
One of Televerde's nonprison rivals, an Austin, Texas firm called the Lead Dogs, complains that Hooker can throw more callers on an account because he pays them less than the Lead Dogs' $15 to $25 an hour. Hooker says he doesn't overstaff projects but benefits from lower turnover. The Lead Dogs hires recent college graduates, who often move on after two years. At Televerde the callers' average tenure is four years.
"We spend at least 30% less on turnover-related training with Televerde employees compared to other call centers," says Nina Simosko, a senior vice president at sap. For the past three years the German software giant has had Televerde pitching business software to chief information officers at midsize businesses.
Most of Hooker's hires stop by Televerde's Phoenix headquarters the week of their release. "You can hug me now, and call me Jim," he says, every time. Televerde offers courses in family reunification, budgeting, self-confidence and résumé writing for life after prison. He trusts the ladies will watch out for one another once they're on the outside. His policy is that if an employee turns herself in and admits to drug use, he lets her off if she promises to clean up. But if someone else turns her in, she's fired. Ten women have been fired.
Hooker's record of low recidivism could offer one solution for states struggling with overcrowded prisons. Oregon, Colorado, Michigan and Illinois have created early release programs that are backfiring. Televerde also eases Arizona's prison budget by kicking in one-third of an employee's daily $65 in room and board.
Hooker employs 7% of the population at the Perryville prison and figures he could hire another 20%. "Prisons are very bureaucratic. They have to be, but that makes it very difficult to do what we do. We need autonomy to make this work."
In Perryville there are no perks for performance besides being assigned to bigger jobs, such as coordinating campaigns. Hooker has testified at parole hearings but isn't sure if it makes a difference. One year Hooker gave out brightly colored ink pens to the best callers. Bad idea. Prisoners used the ink as eyeliner--a no-no. Hooker keeps being reminded that the work itself, and the satisfaction of doing it well, is motivation enough. "It's a deeply human need to want to create something, to contribute."
A dozen former inmates who now work for Televerde are gathered around a boardroom table. They're joking about who will eat the first cookie and swapping turnaround stories. Amy Heiser, a woman who entered Perryville at 19 and pregnant, has tears in her eyes. "Prison was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. The room is silent for a second, and then everyone roars. "Me, too," one gal chimes. "Absolutely," says another. "No doubt."