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Articles about Phone Justice

Illinois Phone Suit Dismissed

In the August, 1999, issue of PLN we reported that a class action suit had been filed in federal court in Illinois challenging the extortionate phone rates charged to those who accept collect calls from prisoners.

On March 23, 2000, federal district court judge William Hibbler ordered the suit dismissed on the defendants' motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs in the suit consisted of prisoners phoning people outside prison and free citizens desiring phone contact with prisoners. The defendants are the Illinois Department of Corrections and various Illinois county jails that have entered into exclusive phone service contracts with phone companies. Also being sued are the phone companies that provide phone services to Illinois prisons and jails and charge rates significantly higher than those charged for collect calls by non prisoners. The plaintiffs claimed that the high rates violated numerous provisions of the U.S. and Illinois constitutions, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the federal 1996 federal telecommunications act and various state laws. (See the August, 1999, PLN for the full details on the suit.)

The court held the issues were non justiciable under the "filed rate" and "primary jurisdiction" doctrines. Under 47 U.S.C. § 203(a) phone companies file tariffs ...

New Mexico Private and State Prison Phone Rates Challenged

Two separate state court class action lawsuits have challenged the excessive phone rates charged to people who accept collect calls from New Mexico state prisoners. The first lawsuit, Valdez v. Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, was filed on December 30, 1999, in Rio Arriba district court. The plaintiffs have family members imprisoned in private prisons or jails run by Wackenhut, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Cornell Corrections and Correctional Services Corporation (CSC). Private prisons hold about 30% of all state prisoners in New Mexico and numerous jail detainees. The defendants in the suit include the private prison companies and their employees. The phone service provider defendants are Evercom Systems, Inc. and PCS America, Inc.

The plaintiffs claim that the private prison companies have exclusive contracts whereby prisoners can only place collect calls using the services of the phone service provider defendants, who in turn pay hefty kickbacks to the prison companies in exchange for the contracts. This arrangement prevents the use of competitive services or lower rates by either the prisoner or the people who accept collect calls from them.

The plaintiffs claim that these exclusive contracts and the resulting kickbacks violate the New Mexico Unfair Practices Act, NMSA 1978, § 57-12-1, et ...

Private Prison Denied Wiretap Exception

A federal district court in Rhode Island held that a private jail is neither a "law enforcement" agency, nor a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility, that would shield it from liability under federal wiretapping statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2520 (the Act). The court further held that factual disputes required a trial on the issue of consent to intercept.

This case involves numerous plaintiffs, consisting of attorneys, their incarcerated clients, and the prisoners' families and friends. At all relevant times (1993-94), the prisoners were confined to the Wyatt Detention Facility, which was operated by Cornell Corrections, a private corporation. During this period, the plaintiffs claim that the defendants (the corporation, its agents and employees) intercepted telephone calls from the prisoners, including confidential and privileged legal communications.

Section 2520 of the Act creates a private right of action for any person whose oral communication is intercepted in violation of the Act. As a result, the plaintiffs sued for damages under the Act, and an analogous Rhode Island statute. Both sides subsequently moved for summary judgment.

The Act provides two relevant exceptions to liability. First, § 2510(5)(a)(ii) excludes wiretaps "by an investigative or law enforcement officer in the ordinary ...

Class Action Suits Challenge Rip-Off Prison and Jail Phone Rates

Suit Filed in Illinois

On May 5, 1999, a class action suit was filed by Illinois consumers who receive collect calls from Illinois state and county jail prisoners alleging that they are forced to pay exorbitant phone rates as a result of an illegal conspiracy between phone companies, the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) and some county jails. The plaintiffs include the unimprisoned spouses, parents and siblings of prisoners, prisoners and a legal services group. The defendants are the state of Illinois, the Illinois counties of DuPage, Cook, and Kane and telephone companies AT&T, Invisions Telecom, MCI Telecommunications Corporation and Consolidated Communications Public Services, Inc.

The plaintiffs allege that the exclusive phone service agreements entered into by the phone company and prison/ jail defendants result in those who receive collect calls from prisoners being charged excessive rates and surcharges. The contracts result in huge kickbacks; up to 50% of gross billed revenues, to the jails and prison systems who enter into these exclusive use contracts. The complaint alleges that these exclusive contracts, and the resulting excessive costs, constitute an illegal monopoly and violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the First, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the US constitution, the Illinois state constitution and the Illinois Anti-Trust Act.

The plaintiff class consists of all families, lawyers and bill payer plaintiffs who are billed for phone calls initiated by prisoners confined to a jail or prison operated by the state and county defendants. The ...

FCC Requires Rate Disclosure for Prison Phones

The Federal Communications Commission, (FCC) has issued regulations mandating the disclosure rates consumers will actually pay for phone calls received from prisoners. Effective October 1, 1999, 47 C.F.R. § 67.710 "Operator Services for Prison Inmate Phones", states in its entirety:

"(a) Each provider of inmate operator services services shall:

(i) Identify itself, audibly and distinctly, to the consumer before connecting any interstate, domestic, in interexchange telephone call and disclose immediately hereafter how the consumer may obtain rate quotations, by dialing no more than two digits or remaining on the line, for the first minute of the call and for additional minutes, before providing further oral advice to the consumer how to proceed to make the call;

(2) Permits the consumer to terminate the telephone call at no charge before the call is connected; and

(3) Disclose immediately to the consumer, upon request and at no charge to the consumer

(i) The methods by which its rates or charges for the call will be collected; and

(ii) The methods by which con hints concerning such rates, charges or collection practices will be resolved.

(4) Inmate telephone services means any interstate telecommunication service initiated front an innate telephone that includes ...

Kentucky Utilities Commission Reduces Prison and Jail Phone Rates

On January 10, 1999, the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) issued an order, requiring: prison and Jail phone service providers to reduce the rates they charge for prison and Jail collect calls to the tariff charged for non prison and jail collect calls.

The PSC initiated hearings into prison payphone issues on November, 10, 1997. The PSC held public hearings on April 7, 1998, and received briefings on the matter as well. The hearings were initiated after the PSC received numerous complaints about extremely high phone rates being charged to people who accepted collect calls from prisoners.

The PSC ordered.the phone companies to lower their rates when a: current contract between the Kentucky Deparfment of Corrections and the MCI phone company expires on November. 15; :1999. The PSC order states: "AT&T and any other carrier that has an operator surcharge on collect calls from inmate facilities that is a higher rate than its operator surcharge for any other collect call shall reduce its tariff rate to no more than that paid by the general public for automated calls."

The PSC noted that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required that prison phone service providers identify themselves to the person being called and inform them on how to obtain the phone rate they will be charged if they accept the call. The information must be provided at no charge: [see this issue of PLN for the story on the FCC rule.] The PSC mandated that this requirement will go into effect in Kentucky on March 1, 1999.

The PSC also established two administrative proceedings, one to address the surcharge rates and to incorporate this into future jail and prison phone contracts in Kentucky. The other, to discuss fraud prevention measures and the obligation of phone servic providers to inform call recipients of call blocking and billing procedures. A full copy of the PSC's ruling is available from its website at: www.psc.state-ky-us. See: In the Matter of: Rates, Terms and Conditions for Inmate Telecommunication Services; Establishment of an operator Surcharge Rate for Collect Telephone Calls from Confinement Facilities; and Obligations of Inmate Phone Service Providers to Call Recipients Regarding Notice of Blocking and Billing Procedures. Administrative Case Numbers 368, 378 and 379, respectively.

To date, utility commissions in Nevada and Louisiana have capped the exorbitant rates charged to consumers who accept collect calls from prisoners. The utilities commission in Florida has ordered extensive ...

Judicial Sentence of Life in Solitary Upheld

The court of appeals for the Second circuit affirmed a court imposed sentence of life imprisonment in solitary confinement and prohibiting all communication with anyone except the defendant's attorney and close family members after the district court had approved them. The appeals court also extended the "reasonableness" test of Turner v. Safley, 107 S.Ct. 2254 (1987) to judicially imposed conditions of confinement.

Luis Felipe, AKA King Blood, is the founder and leader of the Latin Kings. Felipe was imprisoned in a New York state prison when he founded the group. Over the years the group grew and Felipe directed their activities from his jail cell. This included murder, robbery, drug trafficking and assorted acts of violence. Felipe was indicted and convicted on 18 counts of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering.

Felipe was sentenced to life imprisonment. In addition, judge John Martin imposed "special conditions of confinement." These required that Felipe be kept in solitary confinement and be prohibited from communicating with any codefendants or Latin Kings; be prohibited from corresponding with anyone except his lawyer and close family members approved by the court, with notice to the U.S. Attorney's office and prohibiting ...

Settlement in Washington State Deaf Prisoners' Lawsuit

Aclass action lawsuit was settled on behalf of deaf and hearing-impaired prisoners in Washington State on September 3, 1998. The settlement agreement obligates the Washington State Department of Corrections to provide qualified sign language interpreters and assistive devices, such as hearing aids and TTY phones, when needed by disabled prisoners in Washington's prisons. The settlement provides that deaf and hearing-impaired prisoners must be allowed access to prison programs and services, such as education, medical care, treatment programs, disciplinary hearings and classification reviews, on an equal basis with non-deaf prisoners.

The case, Duffy v. Riveland, No. C92-1596R & C93-637R (W.D. Wash.), was brought under two federal anti-discrimination laws: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12115 et seq. Plaintiffs' class in Duffy consisted of inmates in Washington "who are deaf or whose hearing impairment substantially limits a major life activity." Plaintiff deaf prisoners had been required to defend themselves at prison hearings without a qualified interpreter, had been denied access to basic education, were paged over the P.A. system despite their deafness, and sometimes were unable to communicate with the outside world through adequate access to a TTY phone. In the words of a federal judge from a similar case in New York ...

ADA/RA Apply to Jails and Give Deaf Right to TDD

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, (RA) apply to jails and require that deaf prisoners be given access to alternate assistance in using a telephone, such as a Telephone Text Device (TDD) and TDD directory or a sign-language interpreter according to a federal court in Illinois.

Steve Hanson, profoundly deaf with only a limited ability to read lips or understand written communication, was arrested along with about ten other people for possession of cannabis. Hanson informed the arresting officers that he was deaf. They responded by placing him in a police van with other arrestees without informing him of the charges against him.

Hanson was booked into jail and .verbally informed of the charges but not how much bail was needed to secure his release. He informed guards that he was unable to use a conventional telephone and requested alternate assistance. None was given. The jail had a TDD, but the sheriff's policy strictly forbid prisoners using it.

Within four hours of the arrest, all of the prisoners transported and processed into the jail with Hanson were released on bail ...

Colorado Supreme Court Holds Utility Commission Lacks Jurisdiction Over Prison Phone Gouging

The Colorado state supreme court held that the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had no jurisdiction over the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) with regards to inflated phone costs charged to prisoners. Several Colorado state prisoners filed complaints with the PUC claiming that the Inmate Telephone System (ITS) implemented by the Colorado DOC and Sprint Communications Company violated state public utilities law by overcharging for prisoner calls. The PUC dismissed the petition, holding it had no jurisdiction over the prisoners' complaint because the DOC was not a public utility nor a provider of non-optional operator services as a reseller of toll services. The PUC held that Sprint did not require a separate tariff to charge prisoners as it was properly operating under its long distance tariff.

The prisoners then went to state district court which also dismissed their petition, holding that the PUC lacked jurisdiction over the DOC and Sprint to review the fairness of charges for prisoner phone usage. The supreme court affirmed.

The phone system under challenge in this case was in place between 1991 and 1995. It consisted of a debit system where prisoners could place 15 minute calls to phone numbers on an approved list and ...