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Articles about Phone Justice

Report Finds Criminal Justice System Financially Overburdens Prisoners and Their Families

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit focused on racial and economic policy, in conjunction with Forward Together and a dozen other community and civil rights organizations recently released a study which surveyed hardships experienced by former prisoners and their families. The study examined the experiences of over 1,080 current and former prisoners, along with their family members.

The study presented a number of striking conclusions. While almost two-thirds of families of prisoners had a hard time fulfilling basic needs, half indicated problems obtaining adequate food and shelter. This was in large part due to the primary breadwinner often being the one incarcerated, leaving their spouse and children behind to find ways to continue to get by.

The study also showed that the cost burden of incarceration and public defense systems is often placed on families of prisoners. According to the study, criminal defendants often have to pay for court fees, fines, phones calls, and commissary purchases. The court fees, which can include costs for public defenders and a jury trial fee, amounted to $13,607 for study participants; a number more than the $11,770 annual poverty line. Most criminal defendants have annual incomes below this ...

Photo of Prisoner Beaten by Georgia Gang Members Posted Online

Prisons are designed to be closed institutions, cut off from the rest of the world. Contraband cell phones, however, are opening them up and exposing the reality of what happens behind the walls. When Demetria Harris saw a photo of her son, incarcerated at the Burruss Correctional Training Center (BCTC) in Forsyth, Georgia, she was horrified.

The picture, posted online in late March 2015, had a caption that read, “When you disrespect the Nation, it brings nothing but pain and suffering.” The term “Nation” was a reference to the Gangsta Disciples gang, also known as “GD Nation.”

In the photo, Harris’ son, Cortez Berry, then 17 years old, had a swollen eye and was hunched down with a makeshift leash around his neck held by one of two prisoners standing menacingly behind him. Harris had learned of the picture and her son’s beating when a friend told her the photo, uploaded by BCTC prisoners using an illicit cell phone, was circulating on Facebook.

By the beginning of April 2015 the picture of Berry had gone viral, attracting nationwide media attention and the interest of such high-profile individuals as Reverend Al Sharpton. Shortly following the publication of the photo ...

How Chicago Police Convinced Courts to Let Them Track Cellphones Without a Warrant

By Jenna McLaughlin, The Intercept

The Chicago Police Department has acquired and used several varieties of advanced cellphone trackers since at least 2005 to target suspects in robberies, murders, kidnappings, and drug investigations. In most instances, officers only lightly described the devices’ advanced technical surveillance capabilities to courts, which allowed the police to use them, often without a warrant.

Now, after a lengthy legal battle waged by Freddy Martinez, a Chicago software technician, court orders and case notes were released, painting a more detailed picture of how the second-largest police precinct in the U.S. uses surveillance technology to track cellphones.

Martinez, who leads the Lucy Parson Labs, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates digital rights and transparency, originally sued for records in September 2014. He provided the released documents to The Intercept.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to request for comment.

Cell-site simulators, or IMSI catchers, are typically suitcase-sized devices that emit signals over the wireless spectrum, masquerading as legitimate cellphone towers. When a nearby phone attempts to connect to a tower either to make a call or to check for service, it will instead link-up to the rogue device, beaming back information about its location, its ...

Video Visitation Companies Try to Stop In-Person Visitation at Texas Jails

In one of the latest attempts to squeeze money out of those least able to afford it, companies that specialize in providing phone and video visitation services to prisoners in Texas jails on a local monopolistic basis are moving to limit or eliminate free and in-person visitation. This forces prisoners' friends and families to use expensive remote video visitation, increasing the companies' profits and the "commissions" they pay the jails. But these profits do not come cheap. The cost is measured in diminished and broken relationships between prisoners and their families--especially their children. This loss of intimate family contact leads to increased disciplinary and contraband problems.

Psychologists and prison administrators have long agreed that in-person prisoner visitation has significant benefits, including helping maintain family bonds and providing a prisoner management tool. The former leads to calmer, better behaved prisoners who are less likely to return to prison after release. The latter means that visitation is so important to prisoners that the threat of losing it as a disciplinary sanction is sufficient incentive to improve the behavior of some otherwise recalcitrant prisoners.

When free in-person visitation is eliminated and replaced with expensive video visitation, those benefits may be lost both because ...

Wisconsin Jail Policies Unconstitutional But Not Enjoined

A Wisconsin federal court held that a jail's disciplinary, mail, and publication rules were unconstitutional. The court declined to enjoin those practices, however, essentially rendering its holding a mere advisory opinion.

On September 29, 1970 pretrial detainees of the Milwaukee County Jail (MCJ) brought federal suit challenging jail practices and conditions. The challenge narrowed as the suit progressed. Ultimately, only four challenges reached trial, to-wit: that disciplinary, mail censorship, reading material, and telephone procedures were unconstitutional.

On January 17, 1973, the district court issued an opinion holding that all but the MCJ telephone policies were unconstitutional.

First, the court found that the jail's disciplinary procedures did not satisfy minimal due process requirements because there were no clearly defined rules, giving notice of the conduct that would result in discipline. The court observed that Stewart v. Jozwiak, 346 F.Supp. 1062 (E.D. Wis. 1972) outlined minimal due process protections for sentenced prisoners including: an impartial hearing officer; advance written notice of the hearing; written pre-hearing notice of the charges; the right to present witnesses; the right to confront and question accusers; and a short, written statement of the hearings officer's decision. Foreshadowing the Supreme Court's soon ...

NY: Prisoner's Abuse Claim Survives Motion to Dismiss

On December 2, 2014, a federal judge denied New York City's attempt to dismiss a suit filed by a Riker's Island prisoner who claimed he was attacked and beaten by a jail guard without provocation or justification.

The excessive force case was actually the third of four lawsuits filed by Hugh Smith, now 40. In his first case, Smith sued because jail officials changed his telephone PIN number without notice. While that case was pending, Smith filed another case against Riker's Island alleging improper religious accommodations. In late May 2012, Smith and the city of New York entered in to a settlement agreement in Smith I for $750. Smith, acting pro se -- and who has a history of mental problems -¬signed a general release discharging the city from "any and all liability, claims or rights of action alleging violation of my civil rights, from the beginning of the world to the date of this general release."

At the time he signed the release, Smith had retained an attorney who had already filed notices of claim on two other actions against the city, including the excessive force case (Smith III) and a negligence claim alleging improper supervision by ...

Eighth Circuit Finds No Constitutional Right to Communicate in Chinese

On August 15, 2016, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a case filed by a Chinese-born Missouri state prisoner who had his mail to and from China repeatedly rejected by prison officials.

Richard Yang – a Chinese-born prisoner incarcerated in the state of Missouri – filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against numerous prison officials claiming his First Amendment rights were being violated when his mail to and from China was rejected by prison mailroom staff. Yang speaks very little English, and all of his family members live in China and speak no English. When he was first imprisoned in 2005, DOC officials allowed Yang to correspond in Chinese. But in late 2007 to 2008, and again in 2011, DOC officials refused to deliver his Chinese-language mail.

According to the Missouri DOC, Yang's mail constituted a threat to prison security because they had no one who could interpret Chinese. Yang filed several grievances claiming that he was being treated differently than other foreign language prisoners, whose Spanish-language mail, for example, was not rejected.

Yang filed suit on the mail delivery issue, and because DOC had ...

Prison-Area Cell Phone Companies Not Liable for Attempted Hit on Guard

In a March 25, 2015, opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that cell phone service providers and owners of cell towers in the area around a South Carolina prison were not liable for the attempted murder of a prison guard ordered by a prisoner using a smuggled cell phone.

Robert Johnson, a captain at the Lee Correctional Institute in Lee County, South Carolina, was shot six times in his home. His wife witnessed the attack. The U.S. Attorney found that an unnamed prisoner used a cell phone to order the shooter, Sean Echols, to kill Johnson in retaliation for Johnson's seizure of cell phones and other contraband from prisoners. Echols pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy to use interstate facilities in murder-for hire.

The Johnsons filed suit in state court under the novel theory that cell phone service providers and cell tower owners were aware that prisoners were using smuggled cell phones to access the towers and carriers and this created an unreasonable risk of harm to others. The case was removed to federal court. The district court dismissed the case, finding that it had jurisdiction and the claims were barred by express and conflict preemption, South ...

Alabama Public Service Commission Enacts Prison, Jail Phone Reforms

Over the past several years, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has issued a series of orders that revise an October 2013 order related to rule changes for Inmate Calling Services (ICS). The PSC issued its most recent directive in February 2016, adopting rate caps set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

For decades, phone calls made by prisoners have posed a financial hardship for their friends and family members who pay for the calls, while providing huge profits for the telecom companies that hold monopoly prison and jail ISC contracts. “Commission” kickbacks paid to the government agencies that award the contracts have helped drive higher phone rates. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.1].

The PSC’s new rules considerably change the ICS landscape in Alabama.

In February 2014, the FCC implemented interim interstate rate caps, causing several ICS providers to inform prison and jail officials that they were ending commission kickbacks for interstate calls. Before the rate caps, a 15-minute interstate call from a state prison in Alabama cost $17.30 while an intrastate (in-state) call cost $6.75. The FCC’s rate caps limited interstate collect calls to $0.25/min. and prepaid/debit calls to $0.21/min. [See ...

Judge Orders End to Recording of Attorney-Client Meetings at CCA’s Leavenworth Detention Center

The Kansas Federal Public Defenders’ Office has challenged a scheme whereby officials at a detention center in Leavenworth, Kansas operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) secretly video-recorded confidential attorney-client meetings. As a result, on August 10, 2016 a Kansas federal district court ordered the practice to “cease and desist” immediately. U.S. District Court Judge Julie A. Robinson also ordered that all originals and copies of such recordings be surrendered immediately to the court.

The previously-undisclosed surveillance practice came to light when a private attorney, Jacqueline Rokusek, was advised by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas that she had a conflict of interest in representing a client. She was allowed to inspect video recordings made at the CCA detention center and discovered that dozens of supposedly confidential meetings between other attorneys and their clients were on the same disks. She then alerted the Public Defenders’ Office and defense bar, igniting a firestorm of protest from criminal defense attorneys.

Experts noted that although the recordings of the meetings apparently did not include sound, the faces of the participants, documents and exhibits discussed were clearly visible. The words spoken could also be gleaned by lip-reading experts, they ...