Route Fifty: Families of Prisoners Sue Over High Cost of Phone Calls

Jul 06, 2020

By Emma Coleman

A new lawsuit filed in federal district court is taking aim at the high cost of making phone calls from prison.

Families of incarcerated people are calling the prices charged for phone calls by telecom contractors in state prisons exorbitant and illegal. With prices that range from $9.99 or $14.99 for a 10 to 15 minute call, the families say that talking to loved ones becomes a financial hardship.

“Many of the folks who are incarcerated and their families come from low-income communities,” said George Farah of Handley, Farah & Anderson, a law firm that filed the case in conjunction with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and other nonprofit groups. “They’re captive to this market. They don’t get to choose which telecom provider to use to talk to their loved ones. The companies exploited the captivity of these families for profit.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in Maryland, names Global Tel Link, or GTL, and Securus Technologies, as defendants. The two companies are the largest correctional telecom companies in the country, controlling 80% of the market. The complaint alleges that officials with the two businesses secretly met and engaged in price fixing—wherein competing companies agree to set the same price for services—in violation of federal antitrust laws.

The lawsuit further accuses Securus and GTL of lying to state and local governments, as well as consumers, about the cost of the transaction fee associated with the call. The lawsuit states that the companies paid “a mere fraction of the supposed ‘transaction fees’” to 3Cinteractive, or 3CI, a payment processor that is also named as a defendant in the suit. Former employees of 3CI interviewed by lawyers on the case said that only $4.35 from each $14.99 call was paid to 3CI and the rest was “secretly pocket[ed]” by the two companies, despite the companies informing the state and local governments that contracted them that $13.19 of the 14.99 charge was paid to 3CI. Securus and GTL also instructed 3CI to “make those misrepresentations and omissions to both contracting governments and consumers.”

“Much of that fee was kicked back to GTL and Securus,” said Farah. “It was a false justification to increase prices.”

A representative from GTL declined to comment. Securus Technologies and 3Cinteractive did not respond to requests for comment.

The high cost of making phone calls from prison has been taken up by several state legislatures in recent years. While multiple legislative efforts at the state and federal level have attempted to lower or eliminate the cost of phone calls in prisons and jails in the past few years, many incarcerated people still face steep charges if they want to talk to someone outside the prison’s walls.

Last year, New York became the first city to offer free phone calls from jail. Mayor Bill de Blasio, in announcing the change, said that he hopes the city can ensure “that people in custody have the opportunity to remain connected to their lawyers, families and support networks that are so crucial to re-entry into one's community.”

The Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for running federal prisons, in April announced that the agency would be making calls free for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. The BOP said the change was made in response to policies put in place to limit the spread of the virus, primarily the suspension of in-person visitation at a time when prisons and jails have been major vectors for disease outbreak.

Several lawsuits in the past few years have challenged the high price of phone calls in prisons and jails, most of them targeting GTL and Securus. While some were successful and resulted in payouts, others have been dismissed—but Farah said that he is “very confident” they can win the case because no previous cases have focused on the accusations of price fixing and the deception of consumers and governments. “We have substantial evidence,” he said. “This case isn’t built on tenuous legal theory or speculation.”

Farah said that a win in the case would have far-reaching impacts beyond the families involved. Research has shown that regular communication between incarcerated people and their families improves physical and mental health in prison and can help prevent the children of incarcerated people from falling into depression and poor school performance. Maintaining family bonds while in prison also reduces the chance of recidivism and helps formerly incarcerated people make an easier transition back into society.

“Many studies show that when you eliminate communication, there are clear societal detriments,” Farah said. “When families have to choose between eating dinner and talking to their loved one, it plagues their pocketbooks and creates widespread social harms.”

We are lawyers who seek to improve the world. We fight for: workers deprived of wages, consumers deceived about products, tenants denied access to housing, farmers mistreated by processors, parents deprived of adequate parental leave, investors who were defrauded, small businesses harmed by antitrust violations, persons with disabilities denied access, whistleblowers who uncover fraud, and women and communities of color subject to discrimination.

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