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Why using the phone in Virginia prisons can be dangerous

Prison tablets
Virginia prison inmates say it would be safer to make phone calls if we followed Maine's lead in allowing prisoners to phone using a secure system like the one shown above.

41-year-old Edward Beavers is doing time at the River North Correctional Center – a six hour drive from his family in Hampton Roads. He rarely gets a visit and has lived through some hard times behind bars.

“Since I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve lost my mother from breast cancer, and I lost my father from a heart attack.”

Talking to family members is not always possible, he says, because access to the phones in his and other residential units or pods is limited.

“There are too many people. You’ve only got 1,2, 3 – six phones, but you’ve got 83 people in here.”

And Askari Lamumba, also at River North, says various gangs and inmates from certain cities decide who gets to make calls.

“The unit I’m in currently there are some Blood phones, there are guys from D.C. operating a phone, guys from Richmond operating a phone, the Cripps operating, but you may go into a unit where there are Gangster Disciples or there are white supremacists, or a lot of Norfolk guys.”

The same is true at Green Rock Correctional Center where Tim Wright is locked up.

“This is one of the only pods that has a white line. None of the other pods have one. If you don’t know somebody or have a reputation, you’re generally going to have to fight for one or use it really early in the morning when most people are asleep.”

He and Lamumba claim most fights at their prisons are over telephone access.

“Fights behind the phones happen all the time here," Wright says. "It’s the number one reason people get in fights on this compound is behind the phones, because there’s nothing else to fight over.”

“It’s almost like a drug,” adds Lamumba. “It becomes addictive. I mean I have literally seen guys who are addicted to the phone. That’s what causes someone to stab or kill each other over the phones. You have some guys who don’t want to face the day-to-day reality of their 20-year sentence or their 30-year sentence, and so being on the phone every day, talking to their woman friend or their family member allows them to not be in here for a few hours.”

Edward Beavers knows first-hand how dangerous telephone disputes can be after a fight some years ago. Guards responded with rubber bullets.

“The second bullet hit me in my face right above my eyebrow, so when it hit me in my face I blacked out. I hit my mouth on a stool, and one of my front teeth came out.”

He claims officers surrounded him and the man who attacked him -- releasing two guard dogs before putting the two men in handcuffs and taking them to VCU’s medical center.

“I was in the ICU for 21 days. I had a blood clot on my brain. I had an air pocket on my brain. I had a concussion, and I had a fractured skull. My tooth was missing, and I had dog bites on my right arm and my left leg.”

To prevent such attacks, Virginia could switch to a system used by other states and local jails for years, lending every prisoner a tablet which connects, through wifi, to the correctional center’s secure phone system. That makes it possible for everyone to call home without conflict.

Virginia is now beginning to distribute new tablets to inmates, but it has not included telephone calls in the package of services those tablets will provide. A prison spokesman says it is under consideration, but he insists inmates do not control the phones at Virginia Department of Corrections facilities.”

Meanwhile, Askari Lamumba has filed a class action suit against the state, alleging the Department of Corrections’ phone system forces inmates to live dangerously to make calls.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.