West Virginia Plan Would Staff Call Center With Inmates

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The West Virginia state Senate is considering a proposal that would allow inmates at a women's prison, which is scheduled to open in 2001, to work as telemarketers for the state's Division of Tourism.

State Sen. William R. Wooton, a Democrat, opposes the plan, stating that he was told by a constituent in the telemarketing industry that people with criminal records cannot get telemarketing licenses. He added that the public would be apprehensive about making travel reservations through inmates.

Democratic Sen. Oshel B. Craigo, who introduced the proposal, disputes Wooton's claims.

Craigo said there are no restrictions prohibiting inmates from working as telemarketers and that he has visited facilities in Minnesota and North Carolina with such programs. He modeled his proposal after North Carolina's program.

"A high percentage of inmates are in prison for drug-related crimes -- people who got caught with marijuana. The average age of the inmates is 22 to 25, and their average stay is two-and-a-half to three years," he said. "The people I have spoken to in the industry said they would be anxious to hire them."

Caryn Gresham, director of public information for the Division of Tourism, also said other state prison systems use inmates as telemarketers. "We have looked at 10 other states that are doing this, and we think it is working," she said. "Our goal is to look at saving costs. We will maintain a research staff and it would be a combination of our in-house agents and inmates that will field the calls."

As for Wooton's contention that people would be apprehensive about making reservations through an inmate, Craigo stated that inmates would only handle inbound requests for brochures, travel and resort information and other free materials. No credit card data would be exchanged, although callers would give their mailing addresses.

The Department of Corrections -- which has prison work programs that include making license plates, furniture and detergent -- will only allow a select group of inmates to participate if the state approves the program.

"There would be an extensive training program, and they would be supervised at the institutional level," said Bill Duncil, the Department of Corrections' deputy commissioner of institution operations.

Craigo said the goal is to make inmates a productive part of society upon their release.

"We hope to view this as a training center for future employment," he said. "What they are doing in North Carolina and Minnesota is taking inmates who are working towards a college degree through one of the local community colleges. This way they will have practical training for when they get out."

Wooton has scheduled a public hearing on the subject for later this month. The state Senate has set no date for when it will next discuss the issue.

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