Have you ever spoken to a call center agent who’s sounded like they are handcuffed to their cubicle? Maybe they are. You’ve heard of insourcing? This is inmate sourcing.

In a trend that is both interesting and somewhat controversial, contact centers are popping up in prisons across the US. The stated purpose is to provide inmates with some useful job skills and constructive activity as they serve their sentences.

Linda Dobel of TMCnet reports:

Callers to 1-800-VISIT-NC are typically hoping to learn what the state of North Carolina has to offer as a vacation destination. When Teresa Culpepper answers one of those 100 or so calls per day with, “Thank you for calling North Carolina Tourism. How may I help you?” most callers will not realize that she and the other women in the 1-800-VISIT-NC call center are serving 15 years to life in the maximum security women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Call Center jobs are emblematic of outsourcing, as these jobs have been shipped to India by the thousands. The Indian contact center is emblematic to Americans because it’s the one place that we can have direct contact with one of those outsourced jobs.  Indian call centers are struggling to improved the quality of their agents (both perceived and actual) by training their agents not only on colloquial English, but also on cultural context.  Filipino contact centers have been able to eat into this market because generally there is a larger number of excellent English speakers in the Philippines as compared to India.

Bloomsburg Business week reports that, “Although the country got a slow start in outsourcing, strong government support, a plentiful supply of English-speaking college grads, and an effort by call center operators to diversify have helped the Philippines overtake India in call center revenues.”  Further, “The Philippines this year will pocket $5.7 billion for call center work from the U.S., Europe, and Australia, vs. the $5.5 billion that India’s call centers will take in, according to the Everest Group, an outsourcing advisory firm.”

While most Americans would welcome the repatriation of jobs onshore, the insourcing of call center jobs to prison inmates has been controversial for a number of reasons.  Some have questioned the wisdom of letting inmates anywhere near customers and their credit information.  Others, including union opponents to a contact center in NY are asking why the prison labor is competing with law abiding citizens when there is high unemployment in a down economy.  “Quite literally, they’re taking advantage of a captive audience,” says Tony Daley, research economist for the Communications Workers of America, which represents 700,000 people nationwide.”

In this case, telephony technology has brought to light broader social and economic questions as the search for inexpensive labor in a tight economy.