6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone Call

Prison: Its looming threat is the sole reason that the Cracked offices limit cocaine and erotic knife fights to Fridays only. But when that fascist, Johnny Law, inevitably checks our browser history and sends us to the big house, at least we'll still be able to call our loved ones and regale them with extravagant lies about running the prison like a marathon. Well, maybe: Prison systems actually have intricate rules about who you're allowed to call, how you call them, and what you talk about. We sat down with a woman who monitors those calls. In the grand tradition of stupidly oversimplifying, we'll call her a phone warden. Here's what we learned:

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6
Prison Phone Calls Are a For-Profit Business

6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone CallAlex_str/iStock/Getty Images

The gist of my job involved setting prisoners up to make their phone calls with the outside world and then listening in on all the catty prison gossip. The company I worked for changed hands to Verizon Business for about a month during my tenure, then it wound up owned by Global Tel Link, but when I started it was with MCI. The only reason I bring that up is to point out that services like mine aren't run by the government or through the prison system. Big ol' corporations handle the work, and their primary concern is making a profit. Hence, one of my main jobs was making sure nobody dared to try a three-way call. Not because phone shenanigans, including three-way calls, can and have led to actual prison escapes -- but just because it cheated my employers out of like, 20 cents.

 Hey, we could buy two hours' prison labor with that money!Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty "Hey, we could buy two hours' prison labor with that money!"

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Here are the basic rules for prison calls: When I started in 2006, one of the phones had to be a landline. Each prisoner was allowed 10 people on his call list. And if you wanted to be added to a list, you had to mail the prisoner directly and wait for her to approve you. Also, they pay for the privilege of calling out of prison -- hence why I worked for Verizon.

The job was sold to me as a cushy gig. I was told I wouldn't even go behind the gate or see prisoners. When I toured the facility, it looked sweet: I'd make more money than I'd ever made and I'd even have my own office -- all for eavesdropping with occasional light data entry. Unfortunately, it turned out that everything I'd been told was a class Rumsfeld lie.

 Up next: weapons. Ass. Discussion.Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images Up next: weapons. Ass. Discussion.

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5
You Have to Meet the Prisoners You Spy On and Piss Off, Face to Face

6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone CallClaudia Gabriela Tapuleasa/iStock/Getty Images

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Only a few days passed before they asked me, "Would you mind going out to inmate dorms to answer questions about the phone system?" Now I had to go meet dangerous criminals face to face, sometimes after shooting down their requested phone contacts.

 And even non-criminal customers want to kill Verizon reps.byheaven/iStock/Getty Images And even non-criminal customers want to kill Verizon reps.

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"Oh hey, convicted criminal, I listen to everything you say -- some of it possibly meant to be secret. Here's my face, my name, and my place of employment. Oh, and here's my card, too. I've included a list of my deepest fears and allergies on the back, just for funsies."

I had one chick send me eight different numbers (in eight different states) for her husband. I had to deny her because none were a landline. Later that day, I was listening to calls and heard her going on and on about the "phone bitch" -- she kept saying she was going to find me at the prison and make me add the numbers.

 If she doesn't start adding, I'm gonna start subtracting.Dale Yudelman/Wiki Commons "If she doesn't start adding, I'm gonna start subtracting."

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Luckily the prison system doesn't take math-based threats lightly: They gave me a Personal Body Alarm, or PBA, to carry with me. It was a black, rectangular box with a belt clip and a single white button. Should anything happen, I'd just press the button and hopefully guards would come to my aid before I caught a sharpened tooth brush to the gall bladder. Thankfully, I never had to use it. To this day, the only person to force me to add anything was Count von Count from Sesame Street.

That monster.

4
Part of Your Job Is Snitching

6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone CallOlga Miltsova/iStock/Getty Images

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My job wasn't exclusively monitoring for illicit use of call waiting and whatnot. I did have to listen for possible criminal scheming, mostly about drugs. Drugs are a fact of life in every single prison on Earth. Prison guards seized nearly 3,000 grams of weed and 92 grams of cocaine alone between 2008 and 2009 -- and that's just the shit they caught.

 That's just the shit they caught <i>and actually reported</i>.Scott Harms/iStock/Getty Images That's just the shit they caught and actually reported.

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There are a few ways to pick out a drug call. Mostly it's just in the flow of conversation. Drug calls don't use normal sentences, and the participants talk in really short spurts. I mean, they're not Navajo code talkers or anything. They'll substitute some random word for whatever drug they're talking about. "Cookies" for "weed" was pretty common: "Did you get those cookies I sent in?" or "that last batch of cookies was really dry, and I think it was laced with something" or "if you don't find that missing batch of cookies, your whole family is dead."

 Though this was Girl Scout cookie season, so it could have been a legit thin mint-related threat.John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images Though this was Girl Scout cookie season, so it could have been a legit thin mint-related threat.

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Once you walk the halls and realize your prison doesn't smell like the Famous Amos bakery, it's pretty obvious what's really going on: The prisoners have somehow found a way to bake cookies without the smell.

This must be stopped.

3
Sometimes It's Unexpectedly Heartwarming

6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone Callm_a_r_t_i_n/iStock/Getty Images

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This job wasn't all math threats and remedial class-caliber criminal intrigue. I got a call from a mother once, right after her daughter was put into the county jail. She hadn't spoken to her daughter in years and needed to know how to get in touch with her, so I walked her through the process. She was a bit technologically clueless. It was like an extremely high-stakes version of helping your parents fix their computer over Thanksgiving.

 To be fair, how many of you have a clue how to install a landline?Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images To be fair, how many of you have a clue how to install a landline?

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I helped the mother set up a landline, got the request letter to the daughter, approved the contact, and after a week, finally saw on the log that her daughter had called. A few weeks later, I saw the daughter on one of my trips to the jail. She thanked me effusively for helping, and that Christmas her mom sent me a thank-you card. Apparently they just spent that whole first call sobbing to each other -- it was the first time they'd talked in years.

 Lesson: We should jail <i>all</i> daughters who don't call their mothers.moodboard/moodboard/Getty Images Lesson: We should jail all daughters who don't call their mothers.

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Aww, isn't that a Hallmark moment? Like, it's kind of fucked up -- one of those cards you find in the clearance rack, for sure -- but still sweet, in its own way. You've got to hold on to the good stuff, because ...

2
It Can Be Deeply Sad and/or Creepy

6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone CallAlessandro de Leo/iStock/Getty Images

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I picked up stalkers like a stair car picks up hop-ons.

Once this guy called up about contacting his convict girlfriend. He very quickly connected the dots and figured that if his girlfriend was in prison, she couldn't catch him cheating. He then abandoned that and all other forms of logic, and proceeded to hit on the one girl who can actually contact his girlfriend: me. I tried everything to deter him -- I declined, I changed the subject, I told him I was married (even though I wasn't), but he wouldn't let up. He kept calling and calling. I eventually wound up having to get an escort from the prison.

 Escort? You're just turning me on more.franciscodiazpagador/iStock/Getty Images "Escort? You're just turning me on more."

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Seriously, dude: You want one girlfriend in prison and another working at the prison? What kind of bizarre fetish is having you try to hook up that unlikely three-way?

Then there were the more pedestrian tragedies: People clearly cheating on their imprisoned spouses. Relationships falling apart. I wound up listening to a lot of women string sugar daddies along, getting them to send over money so they could buy things at the prison commissary. The thing that got me the most was the young, imprisoned girls calling their moms around Christmas -- reminiscing about holidays past and knowing they wouldn't spend another one together for a long time. It was awful. They're in on a stupid drug charge surrounded by all these hardened criminals, away from their family.

 Santa doesn't visit prison -- not since he got shanked in '03.Studio-Annika/iStock/Getty Images Santa doesn't visit prison -- not since he got shanked in '03.

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Oh God, there's a symphony of tiny violins playing. Let's change the subject to the elephant in the room, with his long, tumescent trunk, throbbing with want ...

1
You Listen In on a Lot of Bizarre Phone Sex

6 Things You Learn Listening in on Every Prison Phone CallDmitry Matrosov/iStock/Getty Images

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Obviously, phone sex was extremely common. I'd say 40 percent of the calls had a sexual element to them. The phone sex in this case was especially strange, because our prisoners weren't allowed to have any kind of sexual contact. But if their significant other wanted to do their half of the phone sex, well, that's not against the rules. That led to bizarre calls where one party was very intentionally not saying anything sexual while the other blatantly tongue-fucked the receiver. It's like dirty talking to your accountant while she patiently does your taxes.

As a trade adjustment assistance recipient, you can use the health coverage tax credit for 80 percent of medical expenses.<br> 
OH! YES!! RIGHT THERE! DON'T STOP!!Valueline/Valueline/Getty Images "As a trade adjustment assistance recipient, you can use the health coverage tax credit for 80 percent of medical expenses."
"OH! YES!! RIGHT THERE! DON'T STOP!!"

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Also, you only get 15 minutes, so if you spend too much time on the one-sided foreplay, your call would cut off right in the middle of the act. And that's how you catch long-distance blue balls.

Every once in a while, an inmate would tell the guy more explicit stuff, regardless of the consequences: Lots of talk about sexual encounters with other inmates in the shower and other such Caged Heat stereotypes. I suspected most of it was made up, but it seemed to do the trick.

 Wait, 1977 Lynda Carter <i>and</i> 2013 Judi Dench were there too!?!Jean-francois henri Schmit/Hemera/Getty Images "Wait, 1977 Lynda Carter and 2013 Judi Dench were there too!?!"

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If you picked up the next call, you'd usually hear that the guy had deposited money into her commissary account, so she could buy Twinkies and what have you. You ever talked a dude off for a Hostess snack cake?

That's the real prison, son.

Robert Evans is the head of Cracked's personal experience article team. You can follow him on Twitter, but only if you're wicked awesome.

For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Words That Used to Mean the Exact Opposite and 7 Horrifying Things You Didn't (Want to) Know About Prison.

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