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Articles about Phone Justice

Major Prison Telecom Merger Canceled; Victory for Campaign for Prison Phone Justice!

The prison phone industry, which provides telecom services for prisons, jails and other detention facilities, has a long and sordid history of exploiting prisoners and their families by charging exorbitant phone rates and fees. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1]. Over the past decade the industry has steadily consolidated, with two companies supplying the majority of prison phone services: Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link (GTL). 

On April 2, 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that a proposed merger between Securus and the nation’s fourth-largest prison telecom, Inmate Calling Solutions, LLC (also known as ICSolutions or ICS), which would have resulted in further consolidation and thus even less competition, had been withdrawn by the firms. 

FCC staff had recommended to the agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, that the merger be denied. Pai wrote in a terse statement that the FCC’s staff “concluded that this deal poses significant competitive concerns and would not be in the public interest.”

The parent organization of Prison Legal News, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which co-founded the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice in 2011 to advocate for reforms in the prison telecom industry – including lower phone rates, the ...

Prison Policy Initiative Issues Report on State of Prison Phone Justice

by Matt Clarke 

On February 11, 2019, the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) issued a report on the “State of Phone Justice,” noting progress on reducing state prison phone rates but fewer reforms in local jails, where high rates and fees persist.

Since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the cost of out-of-state (long distance) phone calls from prisons and jails at $0.21-.25 per minute and limited some of the ancillary fees charged by phone service providers, telecom companies have concentrated their predatory practices at local jails. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1].

While phone rates in most state prisons have declined in recent years, phone service providers such as Global Tel*Link (GTL) and Securus Technologies have burdened prisoners and their family members with numerous fees. Those fees, including fees to add funds to prepaid phone accounts, are a significant burden for prisoners’ families, many of which have low incomes.

Imagine a family whose breadwinner is in jail and unable to afford bond. In addition to worrying about how to pay for food, rent and utilities, they also must deal with jail phone costs that may run over $20 for a 15-minute call. Making the choice to decline ...

Cell Phones Sold in Commissary at South Carolina Jail

by Scott Grammer

There is a surprising item for sale in the commissary at the Union County Jail in South Carolina: cell phones. The $100 phones can be used to text and make calls between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., but do not have Internet access. All communications are monitored and the phones cannot be used to contact alleged victims. Games, music, reading materials and a GED program can be downloaded from access points within the jail. The phones and associated services are provided by Lattice Incorporated.

The company’s website says their “CellMate” phone “is changing how inmates communicate with family and friends and access educational and entertainment content,” and that a future update will allow access to “rehabilitation videos, online educational courses, religious broadcasts, [and] law library content.” This is similar to content provided by tablets in prisons and jail, which also employ a pay-for-service model. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.44; Nov. 2016, p.52; July 2015, p.42].

According to Union County Sheriff David Taylor, the county makes money from the sale of the phones and additional minutes purchased to use them. Lattice emphasizes to jail officials that its “robust account deposit platform ... ensures that ...

Federal Circuit Upholds BOP Guard’s Termination Despite 1,265-Day Delay

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the termination of a federal prison guard, finding that he waived any claim of prejudice from a 1,265-day delay between commencement of the investigation and termination.

Leonardo Villareal was employed as a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) guard from 2007 until May 23, 2016. He had no disciplinary record and his evaluations were all rated satisfactory or higher.

While employed as a senior guard at BOP’s Federal Detention Center Houston, a prisoner complained to BOP’s internal affairs about Villareal in November 2012. The matter was referred to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which initiated a December 6, 2012, investigation into: Villareal’s relationship with two female prisoners, Claudia Solis and Andee Santana; improper contact with Solis’s family; preferential treatment toward prisoners; breach of computer security; and inattention to duty.

While the OIG investigation was pending, Villareal was reassigned to a phone monitor position outside the facility’s secure perimeter in January 2013. He was not allowed to interact with prisoners or to work overtime.

Following a seven-month investigation, the OIG concluded that Villareal violated several BOP policies. The inspector general found most troubling that Villareal placed and ...

Lawsuit Challenging Phone Kickbacks at Massachusetts Jail Survives Motion to Dismiss

In December 2018, a Massachusetts federal district court refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the cost of phone calls made by prisoners at the Bristol County House of Correction (BCHC). [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.36].

Before the court were motions to dismiss filed by defendants Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Securus Technologies, Inc. The lawsuit alleged that Securus was awarded a contract on August 8, 2011 to provide phone services at BCHC. That contract paid the Sheriff’s Office 48 percent of Securus’ gross revenue from phone calls made by prisoners, amounting to $1,172,748.76 in “commission” kickbacks from August 2011 to June 2013.
Rate caps ordered by the Federal Communications Commission in 2013 resulted in an amended contract that gave the Sheriff’s Office a lump-sum payment of $820,000 for the duration of the contract from October 21, 2015 to June 30, 2020.

The complaint claimed that Hodgson was violating state law by requiring Securus to make payments to the Sheriff’s Office beyond the authority the legislature expressly gave the Sheriff to charge. The district court found there was authority for state prisons to collect commissions for phone services, but there was no such authority for sheriffs. Absent such authority, ...

Securus Files Suit Alleging FDOC Improperly Entered into Prison Phone Contract

by Chad Marks

In a lawsuit filed on January 29, 2019, Securus Technologies, Inc., one of the nation’s two largest prison telecom companies, accused the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) of ignoring provisions of the Florida Constitution when exercising budgeting and appropriation powers, and doing so at the expense of prisoners and their families.

Securus had provided prison phone services to the FDOC for over a decade. The company also owns JPay, which provides money transfers, video calling and other services for Florida prisoners. In December 2018, the FDOC awarded a 10-year telecom contract to the company’s main competitor, Global Tel*Link (GTL).

In its lawsuit, Securus claimed the contract was improper because it had offered the best value to the state as required by Florida procurement laws. It lost the FDOC contract, Securus argued, because GTL agreed to provide $150 million worth of goods and services to the state’s prison system that the Florida legislature had decided not to fund. 

Securus contended that its reply to the FDOC’s invitation to negotiate (ITN) showed that it was the top-ranked vendor by the Department’s evaluation team, as it offered the best phone services and lowest calling rates, which serve to promote ...

Free Phone Calls for Juvenile Offenders Jailed in Memphis, Tennessee

by Kevin Bliss

In November 2018, Shelby County, Tennessee – which includes the City of Memphis – renegotiated its contract with Global Tel*Link (GTL), the phone service provider for around 5,000 prisoners at the county’s four detention facilities. The new contract eliminates charges for all calls between juvenile offenders and their families or guardians. 

The contract change fulfilled a campaign promise by newly elected Mayor Lee Harris not to support government fleecing of the public. County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, chair of the Law Enforcement, Fire, Corrections and Courts Committee, said she was also reviewing the county’s contracts with companies that provide food services and goods sold to prisoners, to find ways to improve them and make them more affordable.

“It goes towards how we’re humanizing criminal justice in Memphis, so that kids can not succumb to depression or isolation and continue to stay in touch with their families – which is a big part of reducing recidivism,” Sawyer said.

Shelby County and New York City are now the only two jurisdictions in the United States that provide free phone calls to some of their jail prisoners; New York made all jail phone calls free last year, effective April 2019. ...

Imagine Pleading Guilty Because You Can’t Afford to Call Your Lawyer

By Victoria Law, Truthout

Imagine paying $20.12 for a 15-minute phone call. That’s how much a call from the Jennings Adult Correctional Facility in Missouri costs.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set price caps on interstate calls from jails, prisons and detention facilities. Now, interstate calls can cost no more than 21 cents per minute (or $3.15 for a 15-minute phone call). Two years later, in 2015, it did the same for intrastate (or in-state) calls, which make up 92 percent of all calls from incarcerated people. Prison phone providers filed lawsuits challenging these restrictions and, in June 2017, a federal court ruled in the phone companies’ favor. The ruling means that intrastate calls are not subject to FCC regulation and rates fluctuate wildly depending on each facility’s contract with the phone provider.

Jennings isn’t the only local jail with outrageous phone prices. The Arkansas County Jail charges $24.82 for a 15-minute call; in contrast, the same call from the state’s prisons costs $4.80. In Michigan, a call from the Benzie County Sheriff’s jail costs $22.56, but $2.40 from the state prison.

Even when phone costs aren’t as exorbitant, they still add up quickly. The Allegheny ...

Texas Prison System Cuts Phone Rates Over 75 Percent; Rates Drop in Other States, Too

by Matt Clarke

In a monthly meeting held in the ballroom of an Austin hotel on August 24, 2018, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice – the agency that establishes rules by which the Texas prison and parole systems operate – voted unanimously to reduce the cost of phone calls made by prisoners from a maximum of $0.26 a minute to $0.06 a minute. The Board also increased the cap on the length of calls from 20 to 30 minutes. The ruling went into effect on September 1, 2018. 

The move came as the Board debated a new prison phone contract for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The new seven-year contract was awarded in a competitive bidding process to current TDCJ telecom provider CenturyLink, based in Monroe, Louisiana. It requires the company to update existing equipment and install video visitation systems in 12 facilities located in major metropolitan areas. The $0.06-per-minute rate applies both to in-state and long distance phone calls at all TDCJ facilities. 

“This is great news for families who are stressed by incarceration both financially and emotionally,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, who attended the Board meeting ...

New York City Council Passes Ordinance to Make All Jail Phone Calls Free

by Derek Gilna

On July 18, 2018 the New York City Council passed Introduction No. 741-A, which ended the practice of telecom companies profiting from providing phone services for prisoners at inflated rates. Instead, all domestic calls made from the city’s jail system, including the Rikers Island complex, will be free for both prisoners and those receiving the calls.

For over a decade, prisoners’ rights advocates have fought against the exorbitant costs of prison and jail phone calls. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.1; Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1]. A percentage of the revenue generated from prisoner calls is typically returned to the corrections agency that contracts with the telecom company. That was the arrangement New York City had with its jail phone service provider, Securus Technologies, which gave the city $5 million in annual “commission” kickbacks, resulting in inflated phone rates.

The legislation passed by the City Council states: “The city shall provide telephone services to individuals within the custody of the department in city correctional facilities at no cost to the individuals or the receiving parties for domestic telephone calls. The city shall not be authorized to receive or retain any revenue for providing telephone services.”

Twenty ...