Inmate-operators: a sound idea with a few bugs

DAN RODRICKS

September 07, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

I see by the papers where two dozen Maryland prison inmates will be trained to answer telephones when tourists call the state's toll-free number for information about sights, special events, restaurants and other attractions here in the Land of Pleasant Living. I like this idea. It's almost perfect.

First of all, it's economical. It involves institutional peonage, a concept whose time has certainly come. Why should the state pay some private company to have operators standing by when we have hundreds of inmates already sitting by, 24 hours a day, in jail cells across the state? At a buck a day per inmate, it's a bargain.

And who's to know? When tourists call for travel information, they won't know they are speaking with a criminal -- unless, of course, a bunch of inmates start howling "Death to pigs!" or rattle tin cups against the bars of their cells.

Or unless the inmate-operators give themselves away.

Inmate: "Hello, Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "Yes, I'm traveling through your state and wonderin' if there's a place called Maryland House on the interstate."

Inmate: "Sure. I got busted there."

Certainly female inmates can be trained to read calendar listings and maps, give directions, and provide information on restaurants and hotels. Certainly they can be trained to be pleasant on the phone.

That's why the rehabilitative aspects of this project should not be underestimated. Female criminals will develop terrific telephone skills, which could help them get jobs with 900-numbers after parole.

But let's face it. This is not a perfect plan. No matter how well the state trains them, the inmates are bound to slip and do naughty things.

I worry about the inmate who, having been in jail for 15 years, gives old information.

Inmate: "Hello, Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "Yes, I'd like to take my family to the Inner Harbor, Light and Pratt."

Inmate: "Whaddaya wanna do that for? Nothin' but a bunch of old piers, rats and a biker bar. (Hangs up) . . . Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "Yes, we're going to the Orioles game and we need directions from Washington."

Inmate: "Take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, watchin' out for the Park Service cops, all the way to the city. You go downtown, across Pratt Street, take a left on Calvert, go north, checkin' out the hookers all the way to 33rd Street. Make a right . . ."

Another potential problem is the inmate who allows personal prejudices to influence the job.

Inmate: "Hello, Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "I was wonderin'. Where's the best place to catch crabs?"

Inmate: "I'm supposed to say Kent Island. But if it was me, I'd go to the Potee Street Bridge."

Yet another potential problem is the inmate who gives, shall we say, superfluous information.

Inmate: "Hello, Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "I wanna go to Havre de Grace . . ."

Inmate: "Ah, yes, established in 1785, the name said to have been suggested by Lafayette . . ."

Tourist: "Right. Look, I want directions from North Carolina."

Inmate: "You just take Interstate 95 all the way up, sir, past Baltimore, north, but watch for the State Police in the tan cruisers and unmarked tractor-trailers. (Hangs up.) . . . Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "I'd like a list of economical motels in the Baltimore area."

Inmate: "Edison Hotel, but they tore that down. Armistead, but they tore that down. New Motel, but they busted everybody and closed it down. Sorry. We don't have any anymore. (Hangs up) . . . Maryland information. Can I help you?"

Tourist: "We're looking to party-on in Baltimore! Where should we go?"

Inmate: "Odell's."

As I said, an almost perfect idea.

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