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Unanswered Calls from Jail

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.


The present invention is a system and method that allows a calling party to call a destination number and, upon approval of the called party, reverse the billing of the telephone call so that it is deducted from an account owned and maintained by the called party other than the account associated with the destination number. The method of the present invention includes the steps of receiving a predetermined access number from a calling party; prompting for a destination number; notifying a called party of the call they are receiving; allowing the called party to accept the call and enter a number associated with an account other than the telephone service account of the destination telephone number; verifying the account number and whether the account has sufficient value available; completing the telephone call to the destination number; and processing the charges associated with the call to be charged against the account.¹

When automated voices call, they say a name from jail. Sometimes the voices disconnect from the cell phone they reach mid-way through speaking, and sometimes the cell phone company doesn’t let the voices through at all.

When voices do get through, they give instructions on how to hear a real person, your real person, the one locked up for carrying drug paraphernalia or for petty shoplifting. The one who can’t afford $500 bail. You can feel your real person on the other end, waiting.

The voices give instructions on what to do next: call another number. You’re disinclined to hang up because you’ve heard the voice say the legal name of your person waiting. Eventually, after understanding there aren’t choices, you do it.

You call a second number, give another automated voice your information. You must set up an account with the unknown and buy prepaid minutes. You enter your credit card number, if you have a credit card. If you don’t have a credit card, there is nothing.

You enter the expiration date. You enter the security code. You enter your five-digit zip code. The voice recites your information to you as though you didn’t know it between each entry.

You glance at the time stamp and realize this has been over a 5-minute call. Five minutes of hunching on the sidewalk with an arm deadened by the weight of grocery bags, of facing your body away from city noises, of squinting to hear the voice on the other end, the voice that won’t repeat should you miss something.

You finally choose the amount of money you’d like to give the unknown — a $25 minimum — and you’re brought back to the main menu. There is no talking to your person. You cannot tell your person you’ve left money, that you want to talk.

The voice offers no “what’s next” or direction. There is no help button or operator. Though it’s taken too long, it suddenly becomes too soon for the voice to go, but there you are standing on Third Avenue with a dead line. Desperate, you call back. The voice asks for more money.

You suppose you must wait for your person to call again. If they still have faith you’ll pick up. If they are allowed time. If the demons of their mind don’t convince them that you don’t care about a convict. All the Ifs that string together days in a cell.

Fuck it, you think, you’ll do all you can — you will it to be.

– For Prince, for Michael, for those in Rikers Island Jail

Prince: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Michael: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

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Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 11:54 am 12/31/2013

    “If this sentence is true, Santa Claus exists” Haskell Curry. Since 1965 the US has spent multiple $trillions ending poverty in all dimensions by adding money. Poverty explosively metastasized in all dimensions. Return to giving poverty nothing, then observe whether it diminishes – not as an occurrence, but as a vocation.

    The Manhattan Project cost about $26 billion in 2013 dollars. It overall employed about 130,000 people. Did anything interesting, useful, or remunerative result? HUD’s Fiscal 2014 budget is $47.58 billion with about 9000 employees. HUD is a turd bearing no clean end with which to lift it. “Umpolung!” Do it the “other” way.

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  2. 2. tuned 4:24 pm 12/31/2013

    Yep, that sounds like the sort of wheels that grind in the mind of the addict, etc. Always prey to the other criminal types.

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  3. 3. tuned 4:27 pm 12/31/2013

    @ UncleAl:
    Sure, you turn away from the disadvantaged and they die off. That’s no surprise, but it’s not moral either. It smacks of the sociopath.
    It might personally save you $50 a year however. Whee!

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  4. 4. MovingViolation 5:01 pm 12/31/2013


    “It smacks of the sociopath”


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  5. 5. Uncle.Al 5:52 pm 12/31/2013

    Uncle Al says, “A sociopath is a psychopath lacking goals.” My life debt is to the Gifted who create desirable futures. How much of the blue area below must accumulate to equal one 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA 94043?

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