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Articles about Phone Justice

Prison Telecom Giant GTL Agrees to $67 Million Settlement in Class-Action Over Inactive Account Seizure Policy

by Anthony W. Accurso

Prison phone services provider Global*Tel Link (GTL) agreed to a settle a long-running class-action on December 20, 2021, with changes to company policies and up to $67 million to compensate customers for seizing funds in any account that remained inactive for 90 days. Though the amount actually paid will likely be much less, GTL will also pay almost $19 million in attorney fees as part of the settlement.

GTL, which changed its name to ViaPath Technologies on January 4, 2022, provides telephone service to prisoners in almost 2,000 prisons and jails spanning all 50 states, holding a monopoly in most, just as its major competitors do. [See: PLN, Sep. 2021, p.12.]

Paying for calls usually occurs in one of three ways: (1) prisoners purchase a prepaid phone card, which incorporates a fee above and beyond the number of minutes covered by the cost of the card; (2) prisoners make “collect” calls, with the call recipient agreeing to pay an exorbitant rate for the call, which gets tacked on to their phone bill; or (3) the cheapest option, which involves the recipient creating an “account” preloaded with some amount of money to cover the cost of the ...

Suit by HRDC Alleging GTL and Securus Violated Sherman Anti-Trust Act Survives Motion to Dismiss

by Douglas Ankney

A suit brought by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) alleging a price-fixing and kickback scheme by prison telephone service providers Global Tel*Link Corp. (now known as ViaPath), Securus Technologies, LLC, and 3Cinteractive Corp. (3Ci), survived a motion to dismiss by Defendants on September 30, 2021.

HRDC, which has published Prison Legal News since 1990 and Criminal Legal News since 2017, filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on behalf of a putative class of Plaintiffs who have paid, or will pay, $9.99 or $14.99 to receive a single collect call billed by 3Ci for either Securus or ViaPath/GTL, pursuant to their inmate calling service (ICS) contracts with governments operating prisons or jails.

Though this particular battle is being waged over exploitative pricing, the longer war with these firms will also have serious constitutional repercussions. As reported elsewhere in this issue, Securus and ViaPath/GTL are engaged in protracted legal battles over the illegal recording of prisoners’ privileged phone conversations with their attorneys. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.36.]

In this case, the first move was made by Securus, which in 2010 launched two calling services:

• ‘PayNow,’ which charges a fee of $14.99 ...

$900,000 Settlement in Class Action Lawsuit Alleging Securus Recorded California Prisoner-Attorney Calls

Company Walks From Similar Case in Maine

by David M. Reutter

In November 2021, a year after a federal district court in California approved a $900,000 settlement in a class-action lawsuit alleging Securus Technologies, Inc. unlawfully recorded privileged calls between detainees and attorneys, the prison phone giant was still fighting similar allegations in Maine.

The November 19, 2020, order and judgment by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California resolved a lawsuit filed on May 27, 2016, by two former detainees and a criminal defense attorney who used Securus’ telephone services to make calls to and from correctional facilities and whose calls were recorded. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.15.]

As previously reported by PLN, Securus and private prison operator CoreCivic agreed to a $3.7 million settlement earlier in 2020 for engaging in the same illegal behavior at the federal Bureau of Prison’s Leavenworth Detention Center, where the recordings were shared with prosecutors. [See: PLN, Jan. 2021, p.56.]

More recently, another case was filed in Maine alleging that Securus had illegally recorded prisoners’ privileged calls with their attorneys in that state. But a federal judge decided on April 30, 2021, that plaintiffs had failed to allege ...

Qualified Immunity Granted in Suit Challenging Policy of “Checking-In” on Nevada Prisoner’s Legal Calls

by David M. Reutter

On July 8, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused a request to rehear en banc a decision by a three-judge panel of the Court that three months earlier affirmed a grant of qualified immunity to a guard who monitored phone calls between a prisoner and his attorney at the now-shuttered Nevada State Prison.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, the erosion of prisoners’ Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable seizure of private consultations with defense attorneys is a troubling trend, especially with the out-sourcing of prison phone services to private companies who are more difficult to sue. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.21.]

The underlying events in this long-running case occurred between May 2007 and January 2008, which is when the prisoner, John Witherow, and his attorney, Donald York Evans, alleged that guards Lea Baker and Ingrid Connally violated his Fourth Amendment rights and engaged in unlawful wiretapping by listening to their calls with one another. Witherow and Evans filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, which dismissed their Fourth Amendment claim on November 5, 2009. See: Evans v. Skolnik, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104427 (D. Nev.). ...

All Massachusetts Jails to Provide Prisoners Ten Free Minutes of Phone Calls Per Week and Cap Charges on Additional Minutes at 14 Cents

While the Massachusetts Department of Corrections charges prisoners ten or 11 cents per minute for phone calls, the state’s sheriffs set their own rates individually. Some sheriffs charged more than 40 cents per minute.

Now, according to the Massachusetts Sheriff’s Association (MSA), all 14 sheriffs in the state have agreed to provide people incarcerated in their jails ten minutes of free phone usage per week and cap the charges for anyone using more than the allotted ten minutes at 14 cents per additional minute effective August 1, 2021.

MSA president and Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said the sheriffs were aware of the need to maintain contact with friends and loved-ones to prepare prisoners for re-entry into society.

Another factor may have been a bill, S1559/H1900, backed by Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) and filed by State Senator Cynthia Creem and Representative Chynah Tyler, which would require the provision of free telephone calls to people incarcerated in the state’s jails and prisons. In promoting the bill, PLS mentioned the phone calls’ positive effect on re-entry and noted that prisoners’ children would also reap benefits of family contact during a vulnerable time.

However, its most powerful argument was that “[p]risoners and their ...

Louisville Jail Moves to Have Free Phone Calls for Prisoners by First of the Year

by Kevin Bliss

Louisville, Kentucky’s Metro Department of Corrections (MDOC) who operates the city jail has been ordered by the Metro Council Budget Committee to stop charging prisoners for phone calls from the jail by December 31, 2021.

MDOC currently contracts with Dallas, Texas communications giant Securus Technologies for its jail phone system. Current calls cost prisoners and their families $1.85 for 15-minute calls to local landlines, inter- and intrastate calls have additional per-minute fees. Calls to cell phones have a flat $9.99 fee.

Lawmakers told MDOC director, Dwayne Clark, to create a new plan eliminating phone fees for prisoners and families by the beginning of next year. The current plan is too much of a hardship on families of the prisoners. “We should not be funding our jail on the back of the families whose loved ones are inmates and should be doing all we can to keep families connected to their loved ones, to ease reentry and reduce recidivism,” stated Budget Committee Chair Bill Hollander.

Mayor Greg Fischer estimated the MDOC would generate revenue of $700,000 from telephone kickbacks for the year 2021. The city plans to use the better revenue forecasts and federal American Rescue Act funds” ...

California Slashes High Call Rates in Prisons and Jails

by Chuck Sharman

On the heels of a May 2021 decision by federal regulators that sharply lowered rates prisoners and their loved ones pay for interstate calls, the California Public Utilities Commission (CAPUC) adopted a rule on August 19, 2021, which takes a hatchet to rates on intrastate calls—the lion’s share of the $1.2 billion U.S. market for prisoner calls, which currently run as high as $6.95 a minute in the state. The rule establishes a rate cap for the first time in the Golden State that now limits providers of “Incarcerated Person’s Calling Services” (IPCS) on an interim basis to a fee of $0.07 per minute.

Paul Wright, the director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida nonprofit which publishes Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, provided expert testimony in the proceedings before CAPUC.

When the new rule takes effect on October 7, 2021, 45 days after it was both adopted and issued, it will provide immediate relief to nearly 77,000 prisoners held in California’s 249 local and county jails, plus almost 11,500 prisoners held in 16 federal prisons in the state. There are another 94,500 state prisoners held by the California Department of Corrections and ...

FCC Takes Further Action on Prison and Jail Phone Rates

by Chuck Sharman

A review of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report and adopted order on rates for interstate inmate calling services (ICS), released May 24, 2021.

When this rule takes effect—90days after its release—ICS interstate call rates will be capped at 12 cents per minute for prisons and 14 cents per minute for larger jails, defined as those with an average daily population (ADP) of 1,000 or more. For smaller jails, the cap remains where it was set in 2013 at 21 cents per minute. All of which ensures that prison phone providers like Securus and Global Tel*Link (GTL) will continue making obscene profits off the backs of prisoners and their families.

The new caps are determined by a different formula than that used to set previous caps, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. vacated in a pair of 2017 rulings against the FCC in favor of two large ICS providers: Global Tel*Link v. FCC, 866 F.3d 397 (D.C. Cir. 2017) and Securus v. FCC, 2017 US App. Lexis 26360 (DC Cir. 2017). The formula that those cases successfully challenged estimated provider costs using an industry-wide average, which the court said was likely to mean that ...

HRDC Sues Illinois DOC Under FOIA, Again, for GTL Contract Details

by Chuck Sharman

On August 18, 2021, a lawsuit was filed in the circuit court for Cook County in Chicago, Illinois by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the publisher of Prison Legal News (PLN) and Criminal Legal News (CLN), accusing the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) of failing to timely produce prison phone contract documents that HRDC had sought under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 5 ILCS 140/1.

HRDC’s initial request, filed on June 10, 2021, asked for records of state contracts for prisoner video visitation services, specifically: contracts between the service provider, Global Tel Link (GTL), and IDOC since January 1, 2019; receipts for commissions paid for the services to IDOC or its assignees during that period; and allocations of those commissions.

Under the law, IDOC had five business days to respond, which expired June 17, 2021. But after it blew by that statutory deadline—IDOC didn’t respond with its request for more time until June 21, on day 11. The agency then refused the request on day 18, saying it was “unduly burdensome” to comply.

FOIA does in fact make provision for the state to refuse a records request on those grounds in certain limited situations. ...

The Fight Over Cellphones in Prisons Rages On

by Derek Gilna

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shut-downs have focused attention on the need for connection between all members of society, and for many prisoners, denied in-person visits, a contraband cellphone has helped them keep in touch with family. But that didn’t stop the Mississippi Supreme Court from affirming a 12-year sentence to Willie Nash for having a phone in the county jail. See: Nash v. State, 293 So. 3d 265 (Miss. 2020).

Although correctional officials claim that they can be used for fraud and extortion, just as state provided phones are, the fact remains that most prisoners understand that these phones are too valuable as family communication tools to be put at risk by committing other crimes.

Ten years ago, a New York Times article conceded that harsh penalties and increased vigilance weren’t working to keep phones out of prisons. “The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say.”

As noted by former death row resident Jarvis Jay Masters: “For people isolated from the world, hearing a loved one’s voice or a grandbaby coo for the first time is healing.”

The Times ...