Friday, January 12, 2007

Governor Spitzer Promises Reform of Prison Inmate Telephone Charges

The New York State Department of Corrections (DOCS) contracts with MCI for prison inmate collect call telephone service. For many families whose relatives are incarcerated in distant prisons, this is the primary means of communication.

DOCS contracts require the telephone company to collect a 57% commission for the state on call revenue received from recipients of collect calls made by inmates. Approximately $20 million per year was collected by DOCS through the commissions. DOCS asserted that the money was used for several of its programs designed to benefit inmates, but community groups pointed out that the programs could and should be funded with general state revenues, and that DOCS had implemented an administrative "tax" without proper legislative authority.

The commissions create heavy burdens for low income family members. Those who cannot afford cost of the calls suffer financial hardship if they accept them. Despite objections from community groups and broad editorial oposition from the state's leading newspapers, the commission system continued for years.

When the contract was last renewed, along with community groups, PULP objected to the commissions in its comments to the PSC.

The PSC ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over the commission portion of the rate. The PSC also rejected PULP's petition for rehearing which argued that the PSC indeed did have full power to review and modify the rates for intrastate calls.

Litigation was brought on behalf of inmate families and others by the Center for Constitutional Rights seeking a judgment that the commissions are illegal and refunds of the overcharges. The trial court opinion upheld the commission system, and this was affirmed by the Appellate Division, Third Department. An appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court.

The day before the case was to be argued in the Court of Appeals
, it was announced by Governor Spitzer that the commission system will soon be halted.

This prompt correction of an longstanding injustice in the first week of the incoming Spitzer administration is a very welcome turn of events. Prospectively, elimination of the commissions will correct a DOCS policy that for many years hindered communication with inmates and caused major hardship to many low income families in New York State.

The issues still being considered by the Court of Appeals concern the claims of the plaintiffs for refunds of past commissions, if the court reaches the merits and finds that the commissions are illegal, and mootness claims and procedural defenses.

For further information, see PULP's web page on inmate telephone service.

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