by Steve Horn and Iris Wagner
A comprehensive set of public records obtained by Prison Legal News from the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and most of the state’s county jails indicates that the average cost of local and in-state phone calls made by Washington prisoners has steadily increased in recent years.
The records also demonstrate an ongoing shift toward video-based calling in county jails, which in some cases has resulted in the elimination of in-person, face-to-face visits. PLN uses the term “video calling” because “video visits” implies people are actually visiting each other rather than seeing their images on a screen. The records procured by PLN further indicate that some of the money generated from phone and video calling revenue at county jails, which is placed in Inmate Welfare Funds, is used to pay the salaries and benefits of jail employees instead of benefiting prisoners.
These developments have occurred despite the state’s proclaimed desire to lower phone rates for prisoners and, ironically, are partly due to a cap on interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone rates imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Using Washington’s Public Records Act, PLN obtained and reviewed telecom contracts for the Washington Department ...
by Dale Chappell
Although prison phone service providers and law enforcement officials won their lawsuit to block the FCC’s $.11-per-minute cap on intrastate (in-state) prison phone calls [see: PLN, July 2017, p.52], states can still lower the rates – to even below $.11 per minute – and some have done so. Interstate (long distance) phone rates remain capped by a 2013 FCC order at $.25 per minute for collect calls and $.21 per minute for debit and prepaid calls. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1].
Governors and city and county officials have the power to stop the price-gouging of prisoners and their families by prison telecom companies, said Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes PLN and directs the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. While a number of states have lowered prison phone rates, at the county jail level “things are really a disaster,” he noted.
Many counties continue to charge $15, $18 or even more for a 15-minute intrastate call. The problem is “commission” kickbacks from phone service providers, noted Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative. Whereas government agencies usually contract with a vendor that can provide the ...
by R. Bailey
Prisoners and their families in York County, Pennsylvania are outraged that Global Tel*Link (GTL), one of the nation’s largest prison and jail telephone service providers, has contracted with the York County Prison under a “commission” arrangement that provides kickbacks to the county through inflated phone rates.
At least 11 states have prohibited telecom companies from paying commissions to their departments of corrections, since commission-based contracts result in higher rates that are an unfair burden on prisoners’ family members. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1]. Pennsylvania state prisons charge $0.06 per minute for phone calls.
Records obtained by The York Dispatch, as reported in September 2017, indicate the $0.25 per minute charged by GTL at the York County Prison, “plus various billing fees,” would amount to $900,000 in annual commissions for the county – all paid for by prisoners and their family members. Aleks Kajstura, with the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, called those rates “unreasonable.”
Notably, high prison and jail phone rates are being charged in a market where non-prison telecom companies provide flat-rate unlimited calling, texting and emails for about $40 a month. In response to pressure from prisoners’ rights advocacy ...
by Monte McCoin
On May 2, 2018, attorneys with Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), the Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School and the law firm of Bailey & Glasser LLP filed a lawsuit against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Securus Technologies, Inc., alleging the county jail’s phone contract with Securus constitutes an illegal kickback scheme.
“The excessive costs that are imposed on families by these payments are unlawful attempts to exploit vulnerable Massachusetts prisoners by commercializing their contact with the outside world,” said NCLC attorney Brian Highsmith.
According to court documents, between August 2011 and June 2013, Hodgson’s office collected $1.7 million in commission kickbacks from Securus. The telecom company paid the Sheriff’s Office a lump sum of $820,000 to cover 2016 through 2020.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim Hodgson and Securus are violating state consumer protection laws.
“What consumers are being charged has no relationship to the actual cost of providing phone service,” said Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services. In comparison to a call from a Massachusetts state prison at $0.10 per minute with no fee for the first minute, a ...
by Monte McCoin
On January 15, 2018, the Anchorage Daily News reported that, from 2012 to 2016, confidential conversations between criminal defendants and their attorneys were routinely recorded by a long-abandoned audio monitoring system in a visitation room at the Anchorage Correctional Complex (ACC).
Clare Sullivan, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC), explained that recording equipment was installed in the room at the request of the FBI in 2012, specifically to monitor interviews with suspected serial killer Israel Keyes – a high-profile prisoner who later committed suicide. After Keyes’ death, according to Sullivan, jail staff “simply forgot about” the recording devices, which continued to capture audio continuously, taping over old files every 30 days until the system was “rediscovered” and disabled four years later, in November 2016.
“Once it was discovered that the recordings potentially contained audio, the criminal investigators immediately segregated those recordings, did not listen to them, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office immediately alerted counsel for the Department of Corrections, who removed that capability,” said Anchorage District Attorney Rick Allen’s office.
Erin Gonzalez-Powell is one of many outraged regional defense lawyers who remain skeptical that the practice has, in fact, ended. “If [the ...
by Christopher Zoukis
On August 10, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed four related class-action lawsuits in which prisoners challenged the rates and commission kickbacks associated with jail phone service contracts.
A group of attorneys representing California prisoners held in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties filed class-action complaints alleging that the cost of phone calls at those facilities violated the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment’s unlawful takings provision, the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The plaintiffs said county officials contracted with prison and jail telecom firms Global Tel*Link and Securus Technologies, which charged “unreasonable, unjust and exorbitant rates” for phone calls made by prisoners, then kicked back “extortionate and outrageous ‘commissions’” to the county jails.
Under President Obama, the Federal Communications Commission took decisive action to reduce prison and jail phone rates; thus far in President Trump’s administration, however, the FCC has taken a hands-off approach to the prison telecom industry and refused to defend its own order capping intrastate (in-state) rates. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.52].
Phone calls from county jails can be extremely expensive, reaching over $1.00 per minute ...
by Steve Horn
In little-noticed regulatory filings in New York, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Arizona in May 2018, telecom company Securus Technologies solidified its grip over the prison and jail phone service industry by announcing its acquisition of one of its competitors, ICSolutions, also known as ICS. First reported by Law360.com, the purchase further consolidates the duopoly of the prison telecom market, which is largely split between Securus and Global Tel*Link (GTL).
GTL and Securus currently own over 70 percent of the prison and jail phone industry, according to data crunched by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a criminal justice research and advocacy organization. The regulatory filings – joint petitions by Securus and ICSolutions regarding the acquisition – also included the private equity firm TKC Holdings, the company that owned ICSolutions. TKC Holdings also owns Trinity Services Group and Keefe Group, which provide food and commissary services to prisons and jails.
“Securus will acquire all the issued and outstanding membership interests of ICS,” the filings stated. “As a result, ICS will become a wholly owned, direct subsidiary of Securus. Petitioners intend to consummate the Transaction as promptly as possible after the necessary federal and state regulatory ...
by Steve Horn
In the two months following an April 15, 2018 riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina that left seven prisoners dead and at least 22 injured, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has renewed its push to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to approve jamming contraband cell phones in prisons and jails. Additionally, several prisoners who were wounded during the riot have filed lawsuits alleging that staff at the facility failed to protect them from foreseeable violence.
The incident at Lee Correctional was the deadliest prison uprising in the U.S. in a quarter century. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.12]. Bryan P. Stirling, director of the South Carolina DOC, has maintained that the incident was caused and orchestrated by prisoners over contraband cell phones – a position shared by Governor Henry McMaster.
But others say corrupt prison guards who sold cell phones to prisoners for upwards of $1,500 each are to blame. In a lawsuit filed against the South Carolina DOC in June 2018, Javon Rivers, who was incarcerated at Lee at the time of the disturbance, claims that “guards were allowed to assist inmates with illegal activities in exchange for ...
Prison Legal News Interviews South Carolina DOC Director Bryan Stirling
On May 25, 2018, Prison Legal News conducted a phone interview with South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. The interview took place less than two months after a deadly riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville that left seven prisoners dead and 22 injured. At least seven lawsuits have been filed against the Department of Corrections since that incident, all centering around claims of negligence and gross negligence by prison staff.
During the 30-minute interview, PLN investigative reporter Steve Horn discussed what actions Director Stirling and his department have taken since the fatal April 15 riot, including his involvement in an interstate task force that seeks solutions to contraband cell phones. The task force met on April 30, 2018 in Washington, D.C. and was scheduled to meet again in mid-June in Arlington, Virginia. Stirling spoke about what is happening with the task force, what he believes is the solution to contraband cell phones, the issue of corrupt prison guards, the investigations that have been launched concerning the Lee riot and much more.
Below is a transcription of the interview, which has been edited ...
by Monte McCoin
The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) announced on March 17, 2018 that phone calls from state prisons would be less expensive for prisoners and their families, effective immediately.
“The reduced rate will make services even more accessible and affordable for inmates’ families and loved ones,” Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall declared. “Family members will be able to stay in touch with their loved ones without worrying about the cost. We realize that family contact is very important for rehabilitation.”
The cost for calls made by prisoners dropped from $.22 per minute to $.11 per minute, and associated fees were eliminated or reduced. The rate change applies to all state-run facilities and will soon be the same at the state’s privately-operated prisons. The MDOC’s new agreement with Global Tel*Link (GTL) established rates that align with the per-minute cap the Federal Communications Commission set last year for debit and prepaid prison phone calls – even though those rates never went into effect, as they were successfully challenged in court by GTL and other phone service providers and corrections agencies. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.52].
The MDOC uses “commission” kickbacks from phone revenues and prisoners’ commissary purchases ...