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Compensation Awarded to California Non-Profit and HRDC Officials for Efforts Reducing Prison Phone Rates

On June 9, 2023, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a total compensation award of $113,362 for the Center for Accessible Technology (CAT), finding the organization had made a substantial contribution to PUC’s rulemaking on prison phone services.

CAT, a non-profit that advocates for disability rights, filed a claim for compensation with PUC on October 22, 2021, seeking an award of $125,174 for providing “substantial contribution” in a previous PUC rulemaking decision. That prior decision, D.21-08-037, adopted an interim rate cap of $.05 per minute for intrastate phone calls made by prisoners, including calling services for prisoners with disabilities; it also barred phone service providers from charging certain fees and “prohibited the imposition of any ancillary fee or service fee not explicitly approved in this decision.” [See: PLN, Oct.2012, p.48.]

According to its claim, CAT had been “an active participant in order to address issues of concern to our constituency of customers with disabilities, including the large number of incarcerated persons with disabilities.” CAT wrote it had worked in conjunction with PLN’s publisher, the Human Rights Defense Center, which had established the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and Stop Prison Profiteering campaign. HRDC executive director Paul Wright and former litigation director Daniel Marshall were listed as expert consultants by CAT.

With respect to its contributions to the rulemaking on intrastate prison phone rates, CAT stated it had addressed multiple issues, including PUC’s jurisdiction, competition in the prison phone services market, calling services for prisoners with disabilities, intrastate rate caps and ancillary fees charged to prisoners’ families.

In regard to competition, CAT had argued—and PUC agreed—that prison phone service providers formed “locational monopolies” within correctional facilities, which allowed them to “exercise market power to charge unjust and unreasonable rates.” CAT’s advocacy for disabled persons included expanding the scope of PUC’s rulemaking beyond “text telephones” for prisoners with hearing-related disabilities to include VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services.

When seeking compensation for its contributions to PUC’s rulemaking, the Center listed hours of work provided by its staff, including legal counsel Paul Goodman and legal director Melissa W. Kasnitz, as well as HRDC consultants Wright and Marshall. PUC adopted compensation rates that ranged from $670 per hour for Ms. Kasnitz to $450 per hour for Wright.

PUC deducted 10.5 hours from CAT’s claim as being excessive or clerical in nature before approving its total compensation award, which will be paid by California phone service providers according to their share of state telecommunications revenue, as pegged to calendar year 2021.

In addition to HRDC, CAT worked cooperatively with a number of other advocacy organizations, including the Prison Policy Initiative, Worth Rises, Cal Advocates, Californians for Jail and Prison Phone Justice Coalition, the Ella Baker Center, Media Alliance, The Greenling Institute, Returning Home Foundation, Youth Law Center and The Utility Reform Network. See: Calif. Pub. Util. Comm’n, Decision D. 21-08-037 (Proceeding No. R20-10-002).   

Related legal case

Calif. Pub. Util. Comm’n