The New York State Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by prisoners’ families seeking refunds for the exorbitant phone rates it cost them to speak to their loved ones behind bars. The class action suit, Walton v. NYSDOCS, was filed in 2004 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners’ families and friends, who for years had paid inflated rates for collect calls due to the state’s monopoly contract with MCI/Verizon.
Lawyers for the families said that the excessively high rates amounted to an unfair and “unlawful tax” that resulted in millions of dollars being paid over a number of years. The prison telephone service contract stipulated that MCI pay the state 57.5 percent of the fees received from prisoners’ collect calls. Then MCI would be allowed to charge well over the market rate: a $3 connection surcharge and between 16 and 36 cents per minute. The rate of a collect call from a federal prison is 7 cents per minute. Most of New York’s calls are from prisons upstate to loved ones in New York City.
Mostly due to the long struggle waged by the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, upon arrival to office in 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer halted the arrangement. Rates then fell to about half of what they had been. In June 2007, the state Legislature made Gov. Spitzer’s decision into a law, the Family Connections bill.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that families were paying up to $300 or $400 per month to speak to their loved ones who were incarcerated. Since 1996, they said, the state had collected about $200 million in profits from kickbacks outlined in the phone service arrangement with MCI. The lawyers maintain that families are owed compensation for this unnecessary burden.
The high court’s 5-1 decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the families had failed to assert a legitimate claim under the the state Constitution. The court said the the policy was bad, but not unconstitutional.