Families of Oregon Prisoners Fighting State and CenturyLink Over Access

The Oregon Department of Corrections recently changed their correctional communication systems vendor from Telmate to CenturyLink. This change is happening at a time when family and friends are not allowed to visit adults in custody due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions.   

The new system has technical limitations that are causing frustration for attorneys, family and friends who want to communicate with prisoners. In response, a family member started a petition asking the DOC to make ten improvements to the new system.  

While vendor changes are not unusual, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and CenturyLink have received criticism due to possible fee increases at a time when family and friends have no other way to communicate with loved ones who are in custody.   

“With visits shut down, the roll out of this new system should of been pushed back. It’s not a user friendly system at all,” Deborah G commented in response to a DOC announcement on Facebook.   

The new system requires family, friends and others who communicate with AIC’s to re-validate themselves, enroll in a couple different systems, and fund new prepaid accounts.   

In order to call an AIC, the family member or friend must pre-register and verify their telephone number and fund a prepaid account. During a 14 day transition period, AIC’s may call non-registered numbers, according to an announcement on the DOC Facebook page.  

Family Cites Problems, Starts Petition 

Emma Arbogast started the change.org petition which addresses Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections Colette Peters.  

“We have lost services we have come to rely on to maintain our families and relationships, and had to deal with a confusing and overwhelmingly complex and broken system,” said Arbogast.  

Arbogast also compiled a list of issues with the CenturyLink system that she and others discovered on oregonjustice.org. Among the issues is the loss of instant messaging capabilities, new fees for AIC’s to pick up messenger, and the replacement of one communication system with different systems for the various functions including calls, video visits, and email or text messages.  

The petition also requests the removal of the new $1.95 fee that CenturyLink will charge family and friends in order to deposit money into the prepaid accounts.   

From the petition: “This is an 8% surcharge and represents a 20 minute phone call.”    

No Video Calls for Apple Users 

The petitioners requested that CenturyLink make video visits available to Mac and IOS users. 

They commented that under the new system, video visits are only available to those who use a Windows based computer or an Android device.   

In addition to the technical limitations, some report shortages in video kiosks in some facilities and a lack of available video visit appointments, according to petitioners and commenters to the DOC Facebook page.  

“Please fix the new video visiting system and make it more accessible and easy for individuals to use. It’s also been over a week since losing telmate visits and the new kiosks are still not ready,” posted Lisa M in a Facebook comment on the DOJ Facebook page.  

Problems for Contacts Without Credit Cards, or Overseas 

Over a dozen comments on the DOC’s page indicated that family members who do not have United States debit or credit cards are not able to use the new CenturyLink system to prepay even though they used the previous Telmate system.   

This impacts those who live outside the United States as well as those in the US who do not have credit or debit cards. They must set up a prepaid account to call or video visit with an AIC, currently the only way for them to prepay is by mailing a certified check or money order (no personal checks).  

“Because I am living in Belgium I cannot make an account with my wild world credit card MASTERCARD,” posted Ann K.  “I could pay Telmate all those years they did accept my payments with my credit card. Why does CenturyLink not allow me to make an account?”  

“I’m so angry right now!!!! How am I supposed to schedule a video visit when I can’t pay for it because I’m in England!!?????”  Vicki W posted. “AICs need positive, constant contact from their family and friends. Denying them and us this is just awful!!!!!!”  

The DOC responded to these concerns explaining that under the new system people with international phone numbers cannot set up a prepaid account, they have to go through a manual process. Also: “CenturyLink can only accept payments from international individuals IF they have a US based card with a US based billing address. CenturyLink can accept money orders and cashier’s checks in US currency as well.”  

Privacy Concerns, Voice Prints Being Collected 

Street Roots News reported that the AICs and the people they call will be automatically enrolled in a data-collection program that “extracts and digitizes their voices into unique biometric signatures, known as voice prints.”  

Similar happened in other states like New York and has sparked privacy concerns for family, friends, attorneys and others who talk with AICs, as described by The Intercept.  

CenturyLink’s History of Charging Undisclosed Fees 

Some have other concerns about CenturyLink and their history in the state of Oregon. In December 2019, The Oregon Department of Justice announced a $4 million settlement with CenturyLink for charges of undisclosed fees and deceptive advertising. This included repayment to 8,212 Oregonians who were overcharged for services. Between 2014 and 2019, the Oregon DOJ has received more than 1,200 consumer complaints about CenturyLink according to the DOJ announcement.   

At the time, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said: “Purchasing internet, phone service and cable is confusing enough without false promises, and confusing prices and fees. Today’s settlement sends a clear message that hidden fees and other forms of unfair and deceptive business practices will not be tolerated in Oregon,”   

The Street Roots News reported that the Department of Corrections’ communications manager, Betty Bernt responded to their queries in writing explaining that “the new contract had substantial advantages, including reduced call costs, better customer service, and improved capabilities to monitor prisoner communications.”