BUFFALO, NY - A viewer contacted our tip line, concerned when she had heard that New York prison inmates were operating the phones for EZ-Pass centers.
We looked into it, and found that is not the case.
However, we did find out that there is a chance you could end up talking to an inmate, when you call the NYS Department of Motor Vehicles.
The NYS Department of Correctional Services operates two DMV call centers, at the medium security Greene Correctional Facility for men, and the maximum security Bedford Hills prison for women. Together, 85 inmates handle about one million calls a year.
"I'm not aware of any incident that would cause any concern for the DMV customers," said Peter Cutler, a correctional services spokesperson, who says inmates have been taking calls from DMV customers as far back as 1988.
Cutler said inmates assigned to the call centers undergo nearly 500 hours of training prior to being able to take calls. Each is supplied with a profile book containing all the information necessary to answer general assistance questions, such as DMV office hours and locations, identification requirements, the emissions program, and what customers will need and what they should expect before conducting a DMV transaction.
Inmates transfer any questions about detailed customer information to a civilian DMV employee, according to Cutler, who insisted that participating offenders do not have access to DMV computers and are not able to access any customer data.
Cutler added that offenders convicted of a telephone-related crime or credit card or computer fraud are not eligible to work at the center, and that calls are monitored at random, to ensure that inmates are not asking motorists questions they should not, particularly regarding personal information.
"For example, they might ask from what city or town someone is calling from, but they would never ask them what their address is, and if they did, they would be removed from the program," Cutler told WGRZ-TV.
Removal from a call center job might be the last thing a prisoner would desire.
According to Cutler, call center jobs are among the most coveted by inmates in the prisons that house the centers.
Not only is it appealing for a prisoner to be able to speak with someone outside of the walls and barbed wire that contain them (albeit under very restricted circumstances), but the jobs provide skills which might help them find employment opportunities at the conclusion of their sentences.
"This enables the inmates who are in our custody, who are someday going to return to the community, to gain some skills that will make them be able to hold a job which is what we all want them to be able to do, so they don't recidivate and come back into our system," Cutler said.
As the inmates are paid between 46-cents and $1.14 per hour, the state claims it is saving up to $3-million a year in DMV salaries.
"It's cost effective, it's efficient, and it works," Cutler said.
However, almost since the time of its inception nearly a quarter century ago, unions representing state workers have voiced objection to the program, claiming it takes jobs away from free and law abiding citizens.
New York is not alone in employing prison inmates to operate call centers. Several other states do so, as does the Federal Bureau of Prisons. New Hampshire's department of corrections takes it even a step further, offering its inmate work force up to private firms, to run their calls centers from behind bars.
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