CCR Challenges Legality of Prison Telephone Rates Before NY Court of Appeals

For Immediate Release

CCR Challenges Legality of Prison Telephone Rates Before NY Court of Appeals

Families Who Paid Exorbitant Rates for More than 10 Years Continue to Struggle Despite End of Kickback Contract

WASHINGTON - Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) challenged the
legality of prison phone rates in oral arguments before the Court of
Appeals of the State of New York, the highest court in the state. The
case, Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS),
seeks compensation for years of an unlawful tax levied on families of
prisoners who wanted to remain in contact with their loved ones,
keeping them connected to their communities.

Said plaintiff Ivey Walton, "I live on a fixed
income, and that prison phone contract forced me to make some hard
decisions-most of the time I couldn't afford to put food on the table
and talk to my son in the same month. I want everyone hurt by those
outrageous phone bills for 10 years to finally get justice."

"These families seek to expose the kickback for what it was - an
illegal, burdensome tax that violated their constitutional rights to
freedom of speech and association, equal protection and due process,"
said CCR Attorney Rachel Meeropol.
"DOCS made money off the backs of mothers and fathers, kids and other
loved ones of New York State prisoners for years. They must be held
accountable, and the court can make sure it never happens again."

Attorneys argue the State's profits from prison telephone calls was an
unlegislated and illegal tax that came out of the pockets of the
disproportionately poor families and friends of people in prison. Under
the monopoly contract, families paid $3.00 to receive a call and 16
cents per minute, with multiple surcharges common. Some family members
paid bills totaling more than $15,000 over the course of the contract.
Many still feel the effects, according to recent contacts.

PROFILE

Ronna Smith, age 56, spent two years trying to
maintain supportive contact with her daughter who was in prison, at
first a five-and-a half-hour drive away and later a two-hour drive from
Ms. Smith's home, making frequent visits difficult. She spoke recently
of the toll:

I am still trying to get out of debt.  It's a horrible hardship. I have no savings and can barely keep up.

I basically let everything else go to make sure that my daughter could
call me.  I am still catching up with my mortgage. My utilities are
month-to-month.  Every month I am threatened with a shut off, and every
month I am able to pay them just in time. Credit cards are maxed out.

I tried to limit her phone calls. It was the first time my daughter had
ever been in trouble.  She was sent away for two years, and it was
devastating to the family.  She needed us to keep her going, to keep
her strong. Actually, no, I didn't consider not calling because it was
to take care of her. That's how I felt.

She has her own apartment now, and has two jobs.  Those calls made all
the difference in the world.  I don't think she would have made it if
it hadn't been for the phone calls. She was not used to that whole
system. We had to talk her through everything.  It was a horrible time.

It's been little over a year since she was released and I'm just now
starting to get caught up. Of course, I'm still in the bankruptcy.
There's nothing I can do about that.  That's going to be another two
years until that is done.

BACKGROUND

For more than ten years, families of inmates in New York State prisons
paid phone rates more than six times as high as normal consumer rates
to speak with their loved ones, with bills in the hundreds of dollars
each month.

Starting in 1996 and continuing until Governor Spitzer ended the
practice in 2007, DOCS awarded a monopoly contract that gave the agency
57.5 percent of the phone company's profits from their prison collect
calls (first from MCI, then, later, Verizon), the only way for families
to  speak with their loved ones by phone. The contract went to the
company that bid the highest kickback to the State, not the lowest cost
to consumers.

A landmark study from the California Department of Corrections and
numerous follow-up studies showed that men and women in prison who
maintain relationships with their loved ones are more likely to
complete their parole without incident and have more successful
transitions back into the community when they are released.

More than 80 percent of the State's prisoners come from poor New York
City neighborhoods, according to the Albany-based Center for Law and
Justice.  With two-thirds of the prison facilities located three hours
or more from New York City, telephone calls become a critical way for
families to keep in touch.


TODAY

Despite new lower phone bills, many family members say they continue to
feel the effects of the contract, that they were unable to save, had
higher credit card debt and lower retirement savings. Many were unable
to afford health insurance as a result of the high cost of their phone
bills, and a number were forced into bankruptcy. Many had to forgo or
limit contact with loved ones, and their relationships suffered as a
result.

The financial burden was significant. Over the years that the contract
was in place, families report paying bills totaling anywhere from
hundreds of dollars to more than $15,000.  

In order to make calls to loved ones, families often went without
paying other bills, without paying a mortgage, even without buying
food.

"An overwhelming number of the people we have spoken with were unable
to save money because of the cost of those phone calls," said Annette Dickerson, CCR Director of Education and Outreach. "The effects of this shameful contract reverberate among prison families to this day."

An alternative to paying the cost was staying silent.  Many families
say they frequently went without communicating with parents, children,
or spouses who were incarcerated.  

Juan Cartagena, General Counsel, of the Community Service
Society, and Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights are
co-counsel in the case.

For more information on Walton v. NYSDOCS, click here.

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The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

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