Everyone relies on this relic of telecom technology to stay in touch with the outside world. I am glad we have access to telephones – not all prisoners throughout the history of the world can say they had as much. No matter what the phone room is like, being able to hear the voices of your family and friends is priceless, albeit at times disheartening.
Fifteen minutes is frequently just enough time to get a good conversation started and leave it open-ended. The phone also interrupts you every several minutes with a pre-recorded message: “this call is from a federal prison” to keep the mood in check.
The clarity of the phones is also fairly low. I’m not sure how that’s possible in 2021, but we are using pay phones that are likely twenty to thirty years old. The next challenge comes from the phone room itself. Some inmates seem to think that by speaking louder their points will come across clearer. The phones are spaced six feet apart and there are six of them in the room. Consequently, speaking loudly results in more guys speaking loudly. The phone room, at times, reminds me a humane society on a hot summer day. You can’t hear the barking for all the barking.
Many of my calls take place with me pushing the phone so hard up to one ear you’d think I’m trying to get the hand piece into my head while the fingers on my other hand are acting as a makeshift ear plug. Mindset and willpower aside, prison can be stressful. Inmates become upset during some of their conversations, while having those conversations in a chaotic environment and then walk out of the phone room into more chaos. I never know if someone just had the best call of their bit or the worse. For these reasons, I know inmates who try to minimize their time on the phone. It connects you to the outside world, reminds you what you’re missing, then abruptly cuts the conversation off. Hence the apt name, the stress box.
When I call friends and family I have ground rules:
-I’m in a good mood. No calls unless you’re in a good mood
-I want nothing more out of the call than to hear their voice and catch up
-Wait until the phone room is nearly empty – this is a game of endless patience and little success
-If the phone room is busy, none of the ‘guaranteed screamers’ or loud talkers are in there
As part of a practice of gratitude I remind myself that any form of communication is better than none, I’m lucky to have friends and family to call, and I can enjoy aspects of a life that includes no cell phone.