Inmates Can Update Suit Over Pricey Jail Calls

     (CN) – Inmates and their families may amend 16-year-old claims that prison-owners and telecom firms charge unconscionably high rates for phone calls, a federal judge ruled.
     The class action was filed by lead plaintiff Martha Wright on Feb. 16, 2000, on behalf of inmates at prisons and jails operated by Corrections Corporation of America in 26 states, as well as their friends and families.
     The lawsuit challenges the rates and terms members of the plaintiff class are subjected to for phone calls.
     For years, the prisons have contracted with AT&T and other telecom firms, giving them the exclusive right to provide telephone services to inmates, according to the complaint.
     The only way prisoners can phone their loved ones is by calling collect, for the highest operator-assisted rate – a $4 initial surcharge, then 55 cents per minute – the complaint states.
     That means a mere 15-minute call would cost over 12 dollars.
     The prison operator, in turn, allegedly receives a 25 to 50 percent commission of the collected revenues.
     In addition, the complaint says, inmates cannot receive calls from outside the facilities, and cannot receive or make calls using other, cheaper long-distance carriers or features like direct-dial, dial around, or 1-800-COLLECT, or keep debit cards in jail.
     Rather than serve any security purpose or cover the cost of the phone services, the policies are primarily meant to fatten the defendants’ checkbooks, the plaintiffs say.
     The initial complaint alleges violations of the First and 14th Amendments, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Communications Act, and D.C. state law.
     Finding in August 2001 that the Federal Communication Commission was “in the best position to resolve the core issues,” U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler stayed the case in D.C. later that year.
     In 2014, the Commission moved to hold the case in abeyance pending the adoption of permanent inmate calling reforms.
     Though Kessler granted the plaintiffs’ motion to reopen the case on April 30, 2015, she later denied their request to transfer to the Western District of Arkansas, and dismissed AT&T as a defendant.
     The plaintiffs moved to amend their complaint to reduce their original 12 counts to three, broaden the scope of the proposed class, and reflect changes from the past 15 years.
     Kessler granted the motion Jan. 21, rejecting the claim that the plaintiffs aim to improperly expand the class from callers at prisons where defendant Securus provided inmate calling services, to those at the “thousands” of correctional facilities served by Securus across the States.
     “While Securus is correct that the first amended complaint does greatly increase the proposed class size, a mere increase in class size is neither complex nor inherently prejudicial,” Kessler wrote.
     The court tossed aside CCA’s claim that the plaintiffs “should not have waited 13 years” to amend their complaint.
     “It was entirely reasonable for plaintiffs to wait to amend their complaint until the [Federal Communication Commission] FCC acted upon their rulemaking petitions,” Kessler wrote.
     The judge later added: “Plaintiffs have consistently pursued their case before this court and the FCC. Plaintiffs were under no obligation to file their first amended complaint within a certain period of time after issuance of the [Nov. 13, 2013] inmate rate order, and defendants have not shown how they have suffered any prejudice from the passage of those 13 months.”
     Also remaining as defendants are Microwave Communications Inc. (MCI)-Worldcom Communications and Pioneer Telephone Cooporative.
     Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CCA, said the firm’s “telephone vendors are required to comply with FCC rules.”
     Calling CCA “a company with a strong reentry focus,” Burns said the firm is “committed to ensuring that our residents have opportunities to communicate with their friends and family members through multiple channels of communication.”
     The plaintiffs have yet to return a request for comment emailed Wednesday.

%d bloggers like this: