Keeping in Contact While in Federal Prison: How to Use the BOP`s Phone System
By far, the most popular way to stay in contact with friends and family while in federal prison is by way of the prison phone system. For one thing, it`s instant contact — you get to talk to them right away, unlike email which is delayed by several hours. And right now phone calls are free for federal prisoners so they can keep in contact with family during the COVID-19 pandemic. This information is provided so that you might understand what your friend in prison must do to set up their BOP phone account, giving you an idea of how things work. So I will write it as if I`m speaking to someone who is setting up the account within the BOP.
Setting Up Your Phone Account
Before jumping on the phone in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, you first have to set up your “contacts” in Trulincs, the BOP`s computer system. You can have 100 contacts but only 30 phone numbers. International calls are allowed by adding the phone number with the country code in the contact. Hint: Write your contacts on paper before getting on the computer because you only get 10 minutes to set up your contacts each session before you have to log out and wait to get back on.
You don`t need money in your account to add contacts or set up your phone. Once you add some contacts, the first time you use the phone it will walk you through some prompts to record your voice for the voice recognition program the system uses. Before making a call the system needs to verify your voice each time, so make sure it`s your normal voice. You can manage your phone account by dialing 118#, and then your “pac” number you`ll get from your counselor.
the BOP`s phone provider was recently switched to a private, for-profit company called ICSolutions (it stands for Inmate Calling Solutions, if you want to look them up). Your family can set up a prepaid account with ICS by calling 800-506-8407, or you can use the money in your commissary account. The rates are all the same. That number is also the customer service number for ICS, or your family can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any money on your phone account at the county jail before you got to the BOP will not transfer with you. Your family must contact the phone company there to get the money back.
Important: Before you set up a prepaid account or add any money to your BOP phone account, be aware that all phone calls are free for federal prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. While your money won`t be taken during the free calls, it`s best to play it safe.
Your Phone Calls are NOT Private
Every single phone call you make in the BOP is recorded and every BOP staff member has full access to all your calls — and they listen to them. This includes the U.S. Attorney`s Office, meaning the prosecutor in your case can listen to your phone calls. There`s no such thing as a “privileged” or confidential phone call on the BOP`s phone system, not even a call to your lawyer. You`ll need to work with your counselor for a private legal call on a non-monitored phone. And yes, the feds routinely use recorded BOP phone calls to press charges.
Features of the BOP`s Phone System
You typically get 300 minutes maximum each month (it`s 500 during the pandemic). It sounds like a lot but it goes quick. That`s one short call a day. Many guys run out of minute each month, so budget accordingly. Without free calls during the pandemic, the cost is 8 cents a minute for local calls, and 23 cents a minute for long distance.
There`s no way for your family to call you or leave a voicemail for you. In fact, you can`t even hear when they answer. The recording kicks in right away and it`s the same recording they hear. There`s also no three-way calling allowed, and if the system detects a click on the line it assumes you`re trying three-way calling and ends the call.
Making a Call
Before you make a call to a contact in your Trulincs account, you have to go through this process that takes several minutes: Dial the number, dial your 9-digit “pac” number, verify your voice, and then wait for a long recording that your contact also hears when they answer. They`re told to either press 5 to accept the call, press 7 to block it, or hang up to refuse the call. If they accidentally block the call, they`ll have to call ICS (800-506-8407) to unblock it. You can`t unblock calls on your end, and the BOP won`t help you.
During the call, you`ll hear a beep when there`s a minute left, and another beep when there`s 30 seconds left. Your contact will not hear these beeps, so let them know when it happens. I suggest you set your watch timer to go off at 13 minutes into the call (calls are 15 minutes) so you can wrap up with time left for the usual “love yous” without leaving them hanging.
After you complete a call, no matter how long or short it was, you have to wait 15 or 30 minutes (depending on what prison you`re at) to make another call. There`s no limit on calls per day, though.
Important Phone Pointers
The voice recognition isn`t just so nobody else can use your phone account. It`s also so that the BOP staff knows when you`re using someone else`s account. You`re not allowed to use someone else`s phone account, and they can`t use yours. Sharing your phone in the BOP is the most common disciplinary action I see. Penalties range from loss of phone for a month or so to loss of good-conduct time. As much as you want to be a nice guy to someone, don`t share your phone in the BOP!
The phones are usually off during count times (4 pm and 10 pm every day, plus 10 am on weekends and holidays). Once count clears, in about 20 minutes, there`s a line for the phone. Always assume there`s a line and find out where it is. Often it`s not near the phone to respect the privacy of those on the phone.
Those phones aren`t clean. Some guys carry a rag and cleaner, and some guys will put a sock over the handset. There`s usually a phone that`s wheelchair-accessible, and the BOP does provide phone service for deaf people, including video calls if the person on the other end is also deaf. See Heyer v. BOP, 984 F.3d 347 (4th Cir. Jan. 13, 2021) (holding that the BOP must provide “point-to-point video calls” for a deaf prisoner communicating with a deaf person, and that use of a “video relay service” (interpreter) is not sufficient).
Troubleshooting the BOP Phone
Most cell phone companies consider prison calls “spam” and automatically block them. The BOP suggests that people contact their providers to solve the problem. However, a workaround is to have your contact add the BOP`s caller-ID number to their phone as “safe”: 202-499-3650.
The BOP`s phone system digitizes voice so if your contact uses Bluetooth it can make the call distorted enough that you can`t hear them. For the best quality, ask them to speak directly into their phone.