Court Ignores Plea of Prisoners’ Families Who Paid Millions in Unlawful Phone Tax
November 24, 2009, Albany, NY – Yesterday, the Court of Appeals of the State of New York affirmed the dismissal of Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) issued the following statement in response:
"Though we are gratified by the policy changes that have come about since Walton was filed, this is a major disappointment. Even after the decade-long struggle for justice, the families and loved ones of New York State prisoners still feel the effect of the illegal taxes levied on them for years as a result of MCI and Verizon’s monopoly contract and DOCS’ kickbacks, and they deserved to be compensated. This letdown should not, however, hamper the work being done to end this unconstitutional practice across the country."
The case challenged the legality of an arrangement whereby the Department of Correctional Services raised millions in revenue by awarding a monopoly contract to the company that built the highest kickback into its bid to provide phone service to prisoners and their families in New York State. Family members were forced to cover a 57.5 percent kickback by paying exorbitant fees to accept collect calls from loved ones in prison, the only way to maintain contact by phone, and for most prisoners the only way to remain connected to their communities. The case asked the court to declare the practice unconstitutional and sought compensation for years of what attorneys argued was an unlawful tax. Over the last decade, CCR has worked with a coalition of prison families and advocates who together succeeded in convincing former Governor Spitzer to end the kickback and the legislature to outlaw the practice.
Attorneys say 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. While recent victories have brought the cost of a prison call down to under five cents a minute with no connection fee, many still feel the effects, according to recent contacts with affected families.
CCR attorneys Rachel Meeropol and Darius Charney, and Juan Cartagena, General Counsel, of the Community Service Society, were co-counsel in the case.
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.