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Articles about Phone Justice

Florida Utilities Commission Refunds Phone Kickbacks

The June, 1996, issue of PLN reported that the contract to provide phone services to Florida state prisoners was awarded without competitive bidding in circumstances strongly suggesting corruption. Since 1987 Florida prisoners have been allowed to make collect calls to friends and families, providing the proverbial captive market to phone companies holding the contracts to provide such services. The state, i.e., the DOC, gets kickbacks in the form of commissions.

An investigation by the Florida Public Service Commission determined that North American Intelecom Inc. (NAI), of San Antonio, Texas, had fraudulently overbilled consumers who accepted collect calls from Florida prisoners. In one case a woman was billed for calls from 200 miles away even though they were made from a prison 26 miles away. When PSC investigators made test calls from prisons they found the charges were inflated by as much as 30%. A 34 second call was billed as three minutes! NAI agreed with the PSC to refund $400,000 to consumers who accepted calls from Florida prisoners in recent years.

A 1992 PSC memorandum indicated this problem was likely to arise because phone companies could not afford to pay big kickbacks to the state, now averaging 50% of their ...

BOP Phone Suit Settled

In the March and November, 1994 and March, 1995, issues of PLN we reported developments in Washington v. Reno, a class action suit filed by federal prisoners which challenged numerous aspects of a new phone system imposed by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). (Back issues are available for $5.00 each.) On November 23, 1995, judge Henry Wilhoit, based in Lexington, Kentucky, approved the settlement dismissing the suit. Because we have already extensively reported the litigation and facts in the case in previous issues of PLN this article will only summarize the settlement itself. The settlement was made available to all BOP prisoners via their prison law libraries.

Collect Calls: Under the settlement the BOP must award a phone contract that will enable all BOP prisoners to place collect calls in addition to debit calls (where the prisoner pays for the call by buying phone credits on the commissary). For a four year period, starting from when the agreement is signed, the BOP must allow all prisoners to make at least 120 minutes of collect calls a month, in addition to debit calls. The BOP may require that the collect calls be placed to numbers on the prisoner's official phone list ...

Prisoner Accounts Add Up to Millions

The U.S. prison population has tripled in the last fifteen years and now stands at well over a million. But the number of bodies is not the only statistic that has grown. According to the Newhouse News Service, 1995 saw record sums of money move through prisoner accounts: In California, $64 million; in Florida, $50 million; in Ohio, $33 million.

Most of the money is spent on staples such as cigarettes, coffee, snacks, and toiletries. But even after these deductions, according to calculations by Newhouse, prisoner accounts added up to a staggering $100 million balance.

Collectively prisoners are big business. Communications giant AT&T Corp, for instance, estimates that prisoners placed about $1 billion in long-distance calls last year.

States are scrambling to upgrade or streamline their prisoner accounting systems. In Texas, for instance, prisoners use debit cards, similar to ATM cards, to make purchases at the commissary. These purchases are automatically deducted from their accounts by an electronic system that links the state's 100-plus prisons.

New York has a more antiquated accounting system. The state closes an account and opens another for each prisoner at a local bank every time the prisoner is transferred from one prison to another. Last ...

Washington Legislation Passed

The Washington legislature was in session for a mercifully short 60 day session between January and March, 1996. In that period several hundred anti-prisoner and anti-defendant bills were introduced, at a cost of $1,500 each. While several passed the legislature about half of those passed were vetoed by governor Mike Lowry. The following bills were signed into law:

HB 2195: This law modifies RCW 9.73.095 and allows for the electronic monitoring of all telephonic and non-telephonic conversations in prison living units, cells, rooms, dormitories and common spaces where prisoners may be present. The law requires the DOC to notify visitors, staff and prisoners of this law in writing. The law doesn't effect any real change as the WA DOC has electronically recorded conversations in visiting rooms, cells, common areas, etc., for years. This bill was introduced at the DOC's request.

HB 2320: This is also known as the "Two Strikes Rape Bill." It modifies the 3 strikes law, RCW 9.94A.030, by requiring only a second conviction for any defendant convicted a second time of the following offenses: first and second degree rape; indecent liberties by forcible compulsion; and any of the following offenses if they were specifically found to have ...

Massachusetts Phone Injunction Affirmed

The court of appeals for the first circuit affirmed a district court's contempt finding against prison officials concerning the monitoring and taping of prisoners' phone calls. In 1979 William Langton and David LeBlanc filed suit against Massachusetts prison officials over the interception and monitoring of their phone calls, including calls to counsel and to relatives. They contend the monitoring violated state and federal wiretapping statutes, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 2510 et seq., and Mass.Gen.L. ch. 272, § 99 et seq. In 1984 the parties entered into settlement negotiations and settled the case with a permanent injunction which provided that the MA DOC was prohibited from "intercepting, endeavoring to intercept or procuring any other person to intercept, any wire communication by or to William Langton or David LeBlanc, inmates within the custody of the Department, without a specific court order or legislative authorization to do so..." By its terms it only affected the rights of Langton and LeBlanc.

In April, 1994, the MA DOC enacted new regulations concerning prisoner phone use, 103 C.M.R. § 482.00. The rules implemented a system of monitoring prisoner calls and required prisoners to sign a form "consenting" to have their calls monitored or be deprived of ...

Phone Graft in Florida

Competing telephone companies submitted bids to provide "inmate phone services" to 35 Florida prisons. The contract was awarded to North American Intelecom (NAI) Inc. over rival MCI Telecommunications. MCI filed a protest based on the fact that they scored higher than NAI in the Department of Corrections' bid ranking system. MCI's protest prompted an investigation of the matter by governor Lawton Chiles.

On February 19, an investigator from the governor's office urged that two DOC officials be disciplined for destroying public documents related to the telephone contract bidding process. DOC Secretary Harry Singletary said he was reviewing the investigator's report and that unspecified "disciplinary actions will be taken" against Assistant Secretary Ron Kronenberger and chief of the DOC's bureau of general services, Jim Morris.

The report said that Kronenberger and Morris ordered underlings to destroy internal memos which had recommended awarding the contract to MCI. According to the report, Kronenberger and Morris claimed to have awarded the contract to NAI because it would have given more money back to the state (kick-back) from the toll calls. The report also stated, however, that the state share of the profits was already factored into the bid rankings and that NAI had a ...

Nevada Utilities Commission Caps Prison Phone Rates

In the July, 1995, issue of PLN we reported that the Nevada Public Service Commission (PSC) was considering putting an end to the extortionate phone rates paid by people who accepted collect calls from Nevada state prisoners. On September 12, 1995, the PSC announced that the rates charged for prison collect calls would be capped at the highest rate charged by any long distance carrier operating in the state.

The PSC's action was prompted by widespread complaints received by prisoners' family members, many of whom could ill afford the excessive phone bills. Examples cited by the commission were a Las Vegas woman who spoke to her son in a rural Nevada jail for 30 minutes and was charged $85. A Winnemucca jail prisoner called a friend in Eureka, spoke for five minutes and the person called was billed $16, four times the typical rate charged by other long distance companies.

In June, 1995, the Nevada DOC signed a contract with Sprint Communications to exclusively handle collect calls by prisoners. Sprint promptly increased the rate to three to five times higher than what local phone companies had been charging. Rick Hackman, of the PSC's Consumer Division, said "This has been a ...

Washington Court Access Suit Settled

In the April, 1994, issue of PLN we reported the filing of Scott v. Peterson which challenged numerous aspects of court access for Washington state prisoners. On October 31, 1995, most of the suit was settled and the settlement terms were effective November 30, 1995. The settlement is between five named plaintiffs and DOC officials but affects all prisoners in Washington. It is important to note that this is not a class action suit and no prisoners are foreclosed from suing over court access issues. The agreement in this action can only be enforced for a twenty-four month period. Whether the DOC will abide by its terms after that remains to be seen.

Copies: The most important win in the case was that the cost of legal copies was reduced from 20 to 10 cents per page for "all copies of legal pleadings to be filed and/or served in conjunction with the inmate's case." All legal copies must be made in the prisoner's presence and will not be made for anyone else. If the copies cannot be made at the time of request the prisoner can either return at "a reasonable, specific time for the copying to be accomplished" or ...

Detainee States Claim for Retaliation and Med Needs

The court of appeals for the seventh circuit has held that pretrial detainees are entitled to adequate medical care and have a right to be free from retaliation for complaining of guard misconduct. Richard Murphy was a pretrial detainee in the Tazwell and Mason county, Illinois, jails. He filed suit claiming that a guard closed a slot on his hand, breaking several bones. He was then denied appropriate medical care for the injury. After accusing the guard of breaking his hand, jail officials retaliated against him by shackling him to the floor of his cell and revoking his phone privileges. He also challenged his conditions of confinement at the jail. The district court dismissed the suit for failing to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 (b)(6).

The appeals court noted that it reviews all 12(b)(6) dismissals de novo, accepting as true all factual allegations in the complaint and drawing all reasonable inferences from these facts in favor of the plaintiff. The court upheld dismissal of the claim that Murphy waited two hours after his hand was broken before being taken to the hospital. The delay occurred because the sheriff's permission was necessary before he could be taken from the jail. ...

NV Phone Rate Scalping Examined

In response to complaints from prisoners, family members and prison activists, the Nevada Public Service Commission (PSC) began work in December on a plan to regulate phone systems at jails and prisons. PSC Commissioner, Galen Denio, said he has to review testimony and documents from telephone companies and prison officials before deciding what action will be taken.

A proposed plan calls for caps on telephone rates charged to those who use phones in Nevada jails and prisons. Under the proposal, companies providing those phone services could charge no more than the highest rate of any long-distance company operating in the state. Operator surcharges on local calls would also be capped.

Though this may hardly sound like a good deal for prisonersCwho could still be charged the highest rates of any phone customers in the stateCit should provide considerable relief from the rate scalping that has been perpetrated on this Acaptive market.  Mark Collins of Mound House, who is a former sheriff's deputy, said he was recently billed $87 for a month's worth of calls to a friend in jail. He said the Nevada Bell rate for the same calls would have been $29. Collins said the same prisoner's wife was ...