October13, 2009, Albany, NY – 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.
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.
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.
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, visit our Walton v. NYSDOCS Case Overview Page.