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Collect Call from the Gladiator

How Rikers solved the problem of phone ragers like Russell Crowe.

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Russell Crowe, accused of assaulting a hotel employee with a telephone (joining a phone-abusing group that, according to a quick review of allegations in news sources, includes Naomi Campbell, former American Idol contestant Scott Savol, Yankees co-owner Jack Satter, baseball player Wil Cordero, and a 36-year-old Maryland resident whose boyfriend wouldn’t return her food stamps), faces up to seven years in jail. If convicted, he could end up in Rikers Island. And until a few years ago, phone access was such a tough-to-acquire commodity at the jail that 25 percent of its violent incidents—and several murders—resulted directly from phone-time disputes. Fortunately for the actor, prison authorities instituted a new system—documented by Urban Institute criminologist Nancy La Vigne in a paper called “Rational Choice and Inmate Disputes Over Phone Use on Rikers Island”—that cut down on violence by more than half. “Before they put this system in, a few of the more powerful inmates controlled who got to use the phone,” says La Vigne. “There was an informal barter system, and obviously that led to arguments and a lot of violent altercations.” (Like Crowe, many of the inmates have a history of anger-management issues.) Access is now entirely dependent on having money in a commissary account, which, of course, won’t be a problem for Crowe. Officials also halted the practice of charging minutes to stolen credit cards. Nonetheless, privileges in prison can come and go without warning, and he would be well advised not to repeat his tearing-the-phone-out-of-the-wall act if denied long distance again. Notes La Vigne’s report: “The absence of working phones made those who destroyed them the enemies of their fellow inmates.”


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