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Articles about Phone Justice

Fourth Circuit Reinstates HRDC’s RICO Claim Against Securus and ViaPath

On June 4, 2023, a request for a rehearing en banc before the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was denied in a suit accusing prison telecom providers Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link (GTL)—now known as ViaPath Technologies—of illegal price-fixing. That left to stand the Court’s earlier decision on May 25, 2023, reviving a companion claim that the firms violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act.

Securus and GTL/ViaPath have long faced price-gouging complaints from their “customers”—prisoners and their family members and friends forced to pay inflated costs for poor-quality calls. Despite moves by regulators and some legislators to lower phone rates and ancillary fees, there is still much room improvement.

In 2020, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of PLN and Criminal Legal News, filed a class-action suit in federal court for the District of Maryland on behalf of four plaintiffs, challenging the practice by GTL and Securus of charging up to $14.99 for a single collect call fromsomeone in prison or jail. Also named as a defendant was 3Cinteractive Corp., whichhandled billing, processing and marketing for Securus and GTL.

Securus began offering the high-cost calls in 2010 through its “Pay Now” service, ...

“Third Time Is Not the Charm” For Texas Jailers Barred by PLRA from Enforcing Prior Settlement Agreement Against Prisoner in New Suit

by Matt Clarke

On January 12, 2024, the federal court for the Western District of Texas refused a motion by Williamson County Correctional Facility (WCCF) officials, which argued for dismissal of claims by former detainee Rodney A. Hurdsman, 55, that jailers recorded his privileged calls with his attorney and shared the recordings with police and prosecutors in his criminal case.

Importantly, Defendants were barred from enforcing a clause in an earlier settlement agreement with Hurdsman that said it “encompass[ed] any claims” of his, including any he “may acquire or discover in the future.” The Court said that because Hurdsman is a prisoner, his suit is subject to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, which does not recognize such private agreements.

Hurdsman’s claim dates to 2015, when he arrived at the jail on a burglary charge. He allegedly warned that he would be making privileged phone calls to his defense attorneys, even providing their phone numbers, names and addresses. The jail’s then-chief, Mike Gleason, allegedly agreed that the phone calls would be unmonitored and unrecorded, but instead listened to and recorded them, secretly sharing the recordings with law enforcement officials.

In 2017, Hurdsman was released from WCCF to ...

Massachusetts Makes Calls Free From Prisons and Jails

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey (D) signed H. 1796 on November 15, 2023, making hers the fifth state in the nation to eliminate fees for prison and jail phone calls. When the law took effect on December 1, 2023, the state joined Connecticut, California, Minnesota and Colorado in providing no-cost communications for those incarcerated.

State Sen. Cindy Creem (D-Middlesex) and Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Boston) sponsored the legislation, which also covers video calls and email. Their efforts gained momentum in July 2023 when fellow state lawmakers included funds to cover the cost in the state budget. However, Gov. Healey delayed implementation in response to financial concerns voiced by county officials.

To resolve those worries, a fund administered by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance will rebate counties’ additional call costs. Existing telecommunication contracts with companies like Securus will continue until expiration and then be renegotiated.

Previously, the cost of a phone call was 12 cents per minute in the state Department of Correction and 14 cents per minute at most county jails. Advocates noted that the financial burden disproportionately affected the families of Black and Latino prisoners and detainees, who make up more than half of the state’s incarcerated population.

Senior Attorney ...

Florida County Makes Free Jail Phone Calls Available

On October 1, 2023, phone calls became free for some 860 jail detainees at the jail in Florida’s Alachua County, whose Board of Commissioners voted for the change six months earlier. That brought the cost from 21 cents per minute to zero, though for no more than three daily calls.

The Board voted to provide unlimited free calling, but the plan implemented by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) allowed two free calls per day, each lasting up to 10 minutes and separated by at least 15 minutes.

“Start with two, see how that works,” explained Deputy County Manager Carl Smart.

When commissioners heard about the two-­call limit, they reportedly prevailed upon Sheriff Emery Gainey, newly appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on October 2, 2023, to up the daily number to three. Calls must be monitored, and no calls are allowed between 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. Left unaddressed was the biggest constraint—the jail’s oversized population. With 293.5 jail admissions for every 100,000 residents over 18, the county’s incarceration rate is double Florida’s overall rate of 143.4.

At the same April 2023 meeting where they voted to provide free calls, commissioners agreed to eliminate a kickback from private telecom ...

Massachusetts Becomes the Fifth State to Make Prison Phone Calls Free

Until December 1, 2023, Massachusetts prisoners and their families paid 12 cents per minute for phone calls, 14 cents in jails, though the first 10 minutes there every month were free. That added up to about $25 million annually—money that will now be saved, after the 2024 state budget took effect. Signed by Democratic Governor Maura Healy on August 9, 2023, that included an amendment making telecommunication free for prisoners.

That made Massachusetts the fifth state to mandate free telecommunications from its lockups, after Connecticut (in 2021), California (in 2022), as well as Colorado and Minnesota (in 2023). But the measure improves on legislation in those other states because it applies to both prisons and jails, covering not only phone calls but also video calls, email and messaging. The law also bars lockups from taking kickbacks from prison telecom vendors—something the state supreme court said it would not do, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.50.]

A dedicated $20-million trust fund will pay the costs. Other provisions protect in-person visitation as well as prisoners’ access to calls, since supporters of the reform worried that fewer calls would be available once they became free. Jails and prisons may not limit ...

Minnesota Prison on Lockdown After Protest Over Dirty Water, Lack of Phone Use and Out-of-Cell Time

Over Labor Day weekend 2023, approximately 100 prisoners refused to return to their cells at Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) in Stillwater. They were protesting limited access to showers, phones and recreation, which the state Department of Corrections (DOC) blamed on a staff shortage.

The protest lasted seven hours on September 3, 2023, but the prison remained on lockdown the following day. All but two of the protesters returned to their cells. Those two were placed in solitary confinement, including Phillip Vance, 42, who has served 20 years for a 2002 murder he steadfastly insists he didn’t commit.

Vance said the “protest” involved sitting and playing cards in the dayroom rather than returning to small and stifling cells at the un-air-conditioned prison. Before he went to “the hole,” he said: “We’ve been locked in our cells the last couple of days with record temperatures, no access to ice, water, showers, to our families.”

Complaints about dirty water, which comes from a well onsite, met with pushback from DOC. Spokesman Andy Skoogman called it “patently false,” insisting the water “has been deemed safe by testing” and there has been “no outbreak or abnormal number of water borne illnesses, such as diarrhea or ...

Ninth Circuit Revives Challenge by Federal Prisoner in Arizona to BOP’s 300-Minute Monthly Phone Cap

by David M. Reutter

On July 3, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy that caps a prisoner’s phone calls at a total of 300 minutes per month.

The suit was filed in federal court for the District of Arizona by Kenneth Daniel Tiedemann. A father to three children and their sole caregiver prior to incarceration, he maintained close relationships with them from 2014 to 2016, while incarcerated at a privately-operated prison that allowed him to speak to them by phone “an average of 30-45 minutes a day” and “sometimes much longer,” he said.

After a 2017 transfer to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Mendota, California, Tiedemann’s phone calls were cut to just 10 minutes per day. The change to a BOP-operated prison subjected him to agency policy that limits prisoners to 300 minutes (5 hours) per month of phone time absent “good cause.” See: BOP Program Statement P5264.08: Inmate Telephone Regulations § 8(f) (2008).

The warden at FCI-Mendota denied Tiedemann’s request for an exception, a decision affirmed by BOP’s Regional Director. Tiedemann was then transferred to USP-Tucson in Arizona, where ...

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 ...

Minnesota Makes All Calls Free in Prisons and Jails

On May 19, 2023, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed into law SF 2909, the Judiciary and Public Safety budget bill. Introduced by two Democratic state lawmakers, Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten and Rep. Esther Agbaje, the measure made calls free in all state prisons. With it, Minnesota joins California, Colorado and Connecticut in making prison calls free.

Starting on July 1, 2023, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) website now declares that “all calls from an incarcerated person at [DOC] will be at no cost to you nor the incarcerated person calling you.” DOC lockups will also not process any pre-paid calls.

Minnesota families were spending $4.5 million per year to speak with loved ones behind bars. The prison telecom industry is dominated by a few private corporations that exploit vulnerable and financially struggling families, including Securus Technologies, which services over 3,400 U.S. prisons and jails; ViaPath Technologies — formerly Global Tel*Link – which contracts with nearly 2,000 other lockups; and Inmate Calling Solutions, which is in over 230 prisons and jails.

Much of the Minnesota prison population is composed of minorities, whose families were paying a hefty share of these firms’ fees. The authors of state House Bill HF2922, one of ...

Colorado One of Four States Making Phone Calls Free for Prisoners

On June 7, 2023, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed House Bill (HB) 23-1133, requiring the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide, administer and – most importantly – not to profit from communications services used by prisoners. Over the next two years, the state will pick up an increasing share of the cost of prisoner phone calls, rising from 25% on September 1, 2023, to 35% on July 1, 2024. By July 1, 2025, DOC will cover 100% of the cost.  

For the un-incarcerated, services like WhatsApp provide free calling worldwide. But Colorado is now one of just four states providing prisoners free calls. Connecticut became the first state to do so in 2021, followed the next year by California. [See: PLN, Aug. 2021, p.56; and Apr. 2023, p.43.] After Colorado passed HB 23-1133, Minnesota lawmakers voted to make their state the fourth to provide free prisoner calls starting July 1, 2023.

Calling home poses a costly problem for the incarcerated. Prison phone contracts typically rebate a portion of the fee to the prison as a commission, and these kickbacks exorbitantly inflate the cost of a prison phone call. In Kentucky, for example, prisoners must pay $5.70 to make ...