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Highest Court in New York to Hear Challenge to Monopoly Prison Telephone Contract

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The Center for Constitutional Rights welcomes the news that its motion for leave to appeal to the highest court of the state, the Court of Appeals, was granted in Walton v. NYSDOCS. The lawsuit seeks an order prohibiting the State and Verizon/MCI from charging exorbitant rates to the family members of prisoners to finance a 57.5% kick back to the State.

Verizon/MCI is currently charging these family members a 630 percent markup over consumer rates to receive a collect call from their loved ones, the only method of calling from a DOCS institution.

“This is important news” explained Rachel Meeropol, a Center for Constitutional Rights attorney representing plaintiffs in the case. “Family members of prisoners live hours away from where their loved ones are incarcerated, and spend hundreds of dollars a month keeping in touch by phone. Hopefully the court will do the right thing, and finally put an end to this unjust contract.”

The rates under this contract charge family members 630% more than typical consumer rates to talk with loved ones in New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) prisons. New York State gets a 57.5 percent kickback on the phone company’s profits.

CCR expects the appeal to be briefed and argued sometime this fall. Judge George Ceresia of the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County, dismissed the suit last fall, citing issues of timeliness and the Third Department, Appellate Division affirmed the decision.

In its Motion CCR drew attention to the way in which the lower court’s dismissal of the case “wrongly insulated the illegal actions of the NYSDOCS and Verizon/MCI from judicial review for years to come” and asked for review by the highest court, which is a matter of discretion, based on the fact that the plaintiffs “underlying claims – that their Constitutional right to due process, freedom of speech and association, and equal protection under the law are violated by a discriminatory and burdensome tax levied by the NYSDOCS each month without legislative authorization – are timely, are of statewide importance, and merit review by this Court.”

CCR also welcomed a friend of the Court brief by the Legal Aid Society, an organization that provides free legal services to indigent people and litigates to protect prisoners’ rights. The Legal Aid Society also urged the Court of Appeals to review the case, based on the “important issues raised and their statewide significance.”

“I can't afford to talk to my son now under Verizon's rates,” said Ivey Walton, a plaintiff in the case. “No one should be cut off from their family, just so the State can make a profit. I'm praying the courts will correct this injustice and help keep our families together.”

A legislative solution to this phone contract is the Family Connections Bill (S.5299-D) which moved from the N.Y. State Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Corrections, and Crime to the Senate Finance Committee in early January, but did not moved out of committee and was not considered by the Senate before the close of the legislative session in June. The Assembly version of the bill (A.7231-D) passed before session’s end.

 

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.