KRISTIN DAVIS: That Telemarketer Calling You Might Be an Inmate in Federal Prison

Meet Unicor, AKA Federal Prison Industries, Inc. Here they operate a call center that employs over 200 inmates, geared toward renewing free magazine subscriptions.
Publish date:
August 25, 2015
work, jobs, Manhattan Madam, Kristin Davis, Federal Prison, Telemarketing

Have you ever received a call from a telemarketer trying to renew your magazine subscription? Perhaps you're not even receiving that magazine but all of a sudden you start receiving it -- and 3 others you don't have a subscription for.

That telemarketer calling you might be an inmate in a Federal Prison.

Meet Unicor, AKA Federal Prison Industries, Inc.

Here in Dublin, CA (as well as Tallahassee, FL) they operate a call center that employs over 200 inmates. Their sole focus in this institution is telemarketing. All of the calls here are geared towards renewing free subscriptions to trade journals and magazines.

Unicor's motto is "We're a program, not a business. Although we produce products and perform services, the program’s real output is inmates, who are more likely to return to society as law-abiding taxpayers because of the job skills, training and work experience they received."

Unicor has even partnered with the State of California to offer inmates an apprenticeship program and after 1,500 hours of work, the inmate will be a State Certified Customer Service Agent.

Working for Unicor is the highest paying job on this complex with a starting rate of .46 cents per hour (institution pay is .12 cents per hour). Long-term employees can make up to $1.25 per hour. There is also a bonus program for high-performing agents.

I know this sounds like peanuts to most people but prison jobs pay about $25 per month. This is barely enough for us to be able to make 8 phone calls home. Being able to make $200 a month is much more desirable. Women line up for this job. This money helps a lot of inmates maintain ties to their families and even save a little money for their release.

In theory, working for Unicor sounds like a decent and effective way to rehabilitate inmates. It teaches job skills and a good work ethic so they have something to fall back on when they return to the real world.

A number of my friends here, including my bunkie, work for Unicor. Before being allowed to take live calls, they are given extensive training. However, a good part of the training teaches practices that are deceptive and could be perceived as unscrupulous. How to use the customer’s emotions to manipulate a sale and how to use their lack of knowledge of the process, if needed, to secure a sale. Methods that could be construed as questionable relative to standard practices set forth by the Federal Government.

All outgoing calls are "spoofed." This means that the incoming number displays as originating from a telemarketing firm in San Diego (8 hours away). If a caller asks where they are calling from, the inmate is supposed to say San Diego and the name of the firm. If the caller asks if the employee is an inmate or calling from a prison they are supposed to say no.

Inmates are educated about this firm they are supposedly work from so they can answer any questions. They are even told to brush up on their knowledge of San Diego in case they have to make small talk.

If the inmate does not follow these rules, they will be fired.

The first thing an inmate is supposed to do, when calling you, is confirm your name and title. By confirming this information (even if you hang up because you are busy or just don't feel like talking to a telemarketer), your subscriptions automatically renews.

It is assumed that because you confirmed your information that you also confirmed your desire to continue to receive magazines. And, this confirmation enables them to sign you up for add-ons which means you will start receiving magazines that you never really subscribed to.

Inmates have also been trained how to handle a request if you ask to be added to the No Call List. They are required to tell you that it will take up to 48 hours for the list to update. And you may receive another call during that time. Unfortunately, if you pick up the phone before the list is updated and confirm your information, your subscriptions automatically renew.

The only surefire way to stop the subscriptions is to pick up the phone and say you cannot confirm anything (not even your name) and ask to be removed from their calling list. And then you have to keep saying that when they repeatedly call you over the next 48 hours.

I'm sure some of you reading this are concerned about inmates having your personal information. Don't worry -- the Unicor Computer system is designed to protect your privacy.

Working for Unicor is one of the few actual opportunities here in this complex. There really are no vocational classes except a basic computer class and a Microsoft Word class. I can't help but think we are housing women like cattle then releasing them with no chance for a decent life. Not to mention that some of the training seems like it might be creating better criminals rather than rehabilitating them.

I'm also not sure how much value there is in telemarketing jobs in today's digital world. But perhaps that is not the point.

At the end of the day, prison is a business. And Unicor pays a lot of money to these institutions to secure the use of cheap labor. An overhaul of vocational opportunities for inmates is needed but nowhere in sight.