Skip navigation

Articles about Phone Justice

Acrimonious Michigan Prisoners' Rights Suit Settled After 15 Years

by John E. Dannenberg

A class-action lawsuit launched by Michigan state prisoners in 1988 which ultimately cost taxpayers $7.5 million in litigation costs was settled on November 4, 2003, resulting in prisoners gaining appropriate classification and psychiatric services, plus restrictions on administrative segregation that exacerbates serious psychological illness. In addition to retaining personal word processors, prisoners also attained expanded law libraries with 25 hour/week access and adequate photocopies, prompt legal mail processing, and longer attorney phone calls. Specified winter protective clothing was permitted as well. The acrimonious history of the case is replete with repeated attempts by the state to recuse Ingham County Circuit Judge James Giddings, culminating in a public rebuke by former Michigan Governor John Engler denigrating Judge Giddings as a "lunatic who must have gotten a mail-order law degree."

Prisoners John Cain, Raymond Walen, Jr., Elton Mizell, Paul Dye, John Ewing, Delbert Faulkner, C. Moore, Ramon Cobos and Ronald Simpson-Bey sued the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) in the Michigan Court of Claims. Initially, the suit was a reaction to MDOC's then newly-announced tougher disciplinary system, as well as restrictions on prisoner clothing and personal property. Judge Giddings blocked the new regulations, setting the ...

New Mexico Lawyers Entitled to Jail Visiting, Phone and Records Access

A New Mexico federal district court has entered a preliminary injunction that enjoins jail officials from prohibiting class counsel from having access to the jail, its prisoners and staff, its records, and from imposing time limits on telephone calls to lawyers by prisoners. This is a class action suit that includes "all persons with mental and/or developmental disabilities who are, or in the future may be, detained at" the Bernalillo County Detention Center (BCDC).

A settlement agreement between the parties was entered on November 6, 1996. On or about June 17, 2003, the last of the class and sub-class members were transferred from BCDC to the newly constructed facility, the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC). Jail officials then prohibited class counsel from interviewing class members and staff at MDC and changed the telephone policy for prisoners to only allow them five minutes to talk with counsel. Class counsel tried to mediate the matter with jail officials, but those officials would not allow them access to MDC unless they agreed not to be paid for their visits and not to report to the court anything concerning MDC. Class counsel moved for a temporary restraining order seeking access to MDC.

Jail officials ...

Washington Jail Sued Over Conditions

On February 25, 2002, a county jail prisoner in Port Hadlock, Washington brought a class action lawsuit against the Jefferson County jail alleging near barbaric jail conditions that include inadequate health care, frigidly cold cells, broken plumbing, flooding, and inadequate clothing and bedding.

The prisoner who filed the suit, Shawn Orndorff, is being represented by attorneys Aaron H. Caplan and David C. Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the National Prison Project. The suit was filed in federal district court in Tacoma and has been certified as a class action.

The defendants in the suit, Jefferson County, Jefferson County Sheriff Peter G. Piccini, Superintendent of Corrections Carla Schuck, and jail sergeant Steve Richmond, are all accused of subjecting the prisoners at the jail to actual or imminent harm from the lack of "adequate medical, dental, and mental health care," as well as "physical violence" and "inadequate environmental health and sanitation" conditions. The suit further alleges that prisoners are being denied proper access to the courts, and are denied all access to books, magazines and newspapers.

Orndorff, who at the time the suit was filed was serving a sentence on one charge and awaiting trial on another ...

South Carolina County Pays $276,660 for Illegal Wiretaps on Judges' Telephones

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a federal district court's $276,660 damage award to South Carolina state court judges who alleged that Greenville County law enforcement officers ran unlawful wiretaps on their telephones and recorded their conversations for 4 years.

In 1994, Greenville County, South Carolina, completed the construction of a new Detention Center which included a jail, visitation facilities, a separate section with a courtroom and offices for judges, and a system that recorded incoming and outgoing telephone calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. County officials claimed that the system was intended to record the conversations of administrative personnel and guards in the jail however the system also recorded conversations on the judges' telephones and did so without their permission or knowledge.

In August 1998, plaintiff Michael Abraham, a City Administrative Judge, began to suspect that his telephone was wiretapped. When confronted, James McDonald, the jail administrator, confirmed Abraham's suspicions. On September 30, 1998, Greenville County deactivated the entire recording system.

Thereafter, Abraham and several other state court judges brought suit against Greenville County and four individual defendants under the federal wiretapping statute, 18 U.S.C. §2501 ...

Texas Extends 6th Amendment Right to Prisoners: Confidential Attorney Calls Allowed

On December 14, 2001, Texas finally released its stranglehold on the right to confidential phone calls between prisoners and attorneys. Texas had been the only state that monitored attorney phone calls. Even then the American Civil Liberties Union had to pry every last finger off the receiver.

In a letter dated October 16, 2001, Yolanda Torres, Litigation Director for the ACLU of Texas, pointed out that when questioned about its abusive policy regarding the confidentiality of phone calls between prisoners and their attorneys TDCJ had dodged the issue for over a year. She outlined in depth the various ways in which Texas was out of step with the rest of the nation's state and federal prisons. Even conservative states like Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon have long forbidden prison officials to monitor properly placed phone calls between prisoners and their attorneys.

Carl Reynolds, Esq., Special Counsel to the Executive Director of TDCJ, tried to justify the draconian practice under the thin guise of prison security. His arguments included the need to verify an attorney's identity; the need to guard against non-legal conversation; and the danger that an attorney might engage in criminal activity.

However, Ms. Torres quickly pointed ...

Settlement Agreement Reached in Wisconsin Supermax Suit

by John E. Dannenberg

Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) officials settled the 42 USC § 1983 class action civil rights suit brought by seriously mentally ill prisoners housed in the Boscobel, WI Supermax state prison by agreeing not to house the mentally ill there, by substantially reducing "barbaric" conditions and by implementing programs and services consistent with other high-security Wisconsin prisons. Additionally, the two principal plaintiffs were awarded $3,500 each in damages.

After the prisoners won a substantial preliminary injunction (PI) on October 11, 2001 prohibiting the housing of such mentally ill prisoners at Supermax [ Jones v. Berge , 164 F. Supp.2d 1096 (W.D. Wis. 2001)], and after prison officials lost a procedural end-run maneuver on September 18, 2001 alleging failure to exhaust administrative remedies [ Jones v. Berge , 172 F.Supp.2d 1128 (W.D.Wis. 2001)], defendant prison officials quietly entered into a settlement agreement on January 24, 2002 that permanently altered the "Supermax" concept.

The Agreement, which went to the heart of the problem by eliminating the name "Supermax" and by eliminating the labeling of its prisoners as the "worst of the worst," set forth specific minimum standards (details listed below), all of which were subject to ...

New Mexico Caps High Telephone Rates

The governor of New Mexico signed a bill in February 2001, prohibiting prisons from profiting on prisoners' phone calls, which was exceeding 10 times the regular competitive rates with a 15 minute call costing up to $20. The Public Communications Services, a Los Angeles-based carrier kicked back 48.25% of their gross profits to the New Mexico Department of Corrections (DOC) as part of their contract that amounted to over a million dollars a year. Robert Perry the secretary of corrections for New Mexico says that the high rates are justifiable, with the money being used for monitoring calls by prisoners along with anger-management courses, plus monitoring devices used to track prisoners upon their release.

Carol Royal, founder of Families Advocating Correctional Effective Services, (FACES) was one of the factors in the lowering of the high phone rates. Her persistence and determination on campaigning against "(DOC) which as she saw it, was acting (like an evil empire) and gouging prisoners' families," paid off when the bill was passed in the states legislature.

The New Mexico legislature enacted the following statute:

"A. A contract to provide inmates with access to telecommunications services in a correctional facility or jail shall be negotiated ...

U.S. Cited for Human Rights Violations

On May 15, 2001, at a human rights conference in Geneva, the United States was denounced for its inhumane and discriminatory practices. Amnesty International and the U.N. Committee Against Torture cited the U.S. for oppressive tactics by both public law enforcement and prison agencies.

Of particular importance to Amnesty International was the impunity with which two unarmed black men were gunned down by police in Los Angeles and New York. In a 46-page report they demanded an end to the brutalizing and shooting of defenseless suspects by police.

A Committee report cited specific abuses in U.S. prisons. In their own words, "The committee recommends that the state party abolish electro-shock stun belts and restraint chairs as methods of restraining those in custody. Their use almost invariably leads to breaches of ... the convention." Also listed were the excessive severity of super-max prisons and the dehumanizing effect of chain gangs, especially in public.

In addition, the conference expressed a strong regard for the safety of female prisoners from sexual assault by guards and the practice of holding minors in adult jail facilities. According to the conference report, "The committee expresses its concern about the number of cases of police ...

High Cost of Prison Telephone Calls Goes to Illinois State Court

In a characteristically colorful opinion from Judge Richard Posner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit breathed new life into an otherwise moribund lawsuit where plaintiffs sought relief from the exorbitant charges for collect telephone calls made from Illinois' prisons and jails.

Prisoners, their families, and a public interest law firm brought a 42 U.S.C. §1983 action against the state of Illinois and certain telephone companies where they challenged the practice by which prisons and jails grant to one telephone company the exclusive right to provide prisoner telephone service in exchange for 50 percent of the revenue generated by the service.

Federal and state statutes require telephone companies to file tariffs with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC). The statutes grant the FCC and the ICC exclusive authority to determine and approve the reasonableness of the tariffs. Under the "filed-rate doctrine," a customer cannot ask the court in a civil rights or antitrust action to usurp the authority of the FCC or ICC by invalidating or modifying the approved tariff and rate schedule.

Finding itself in no position to invade the province of the FCC or ICC, the district court ...

Prison Phone Rate Case Remanded to South Carolina State Court

The United States District Court of South Carolina has remanded to state court a suit by prisoners' family members against Sprint Payphone Services and other communications providers, the State of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) and its prisons, alleging that the state illegally entered into payphone contracts with the service providers.

Mildred Fair, Pamela Simpson, Jacqueline Anderson, Rhonda Lunsford, and Walter Fair are family members or friends of South Carolina prisoners who have accepted telephone calls from prisoners. Prisoners have no choice of telephone service provider, as DOC contracts for the services. Plaintiffs filed suit under various South Carolina statutes alleging that the contracts were illegal because the rates are unlawful and uncompetitive and the defendants receive kickbacks from the service providers. The defendants, citing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. §276(b), and a federal jurisdictional statute, 28 U.S.C. §1441, moved for removal of the case to federal court. The State court granted the motion, and Plaintiffs moved the district court to remand.

The district court discussed statutory and case law causes for removal from state to federal court. The court then examined the defendants' asserted cause of federal ...