The New York Times
New York State’s highest court has rejected the last vestiges of a lawsuit by families of inmates who claimed that the prison system overcharged them for telephone calls from their loved ones. The good news is that this suit — and an accompanying lobbying effort — has already succeeded in reforming a terribly unfair system.
New York, like many states, used the phones in its prisons as a profit center. MCI, which provided the phone service, agreed to pay the prison system 57.5 percent of the fees it charged for prisoners’ collect calls. The state then allowed MCI to charge outrageously high rates: 16 cents or more a minute plus a $3 surcharge for every call. Families paid as much as $300 to $400 a month, according to one advocacy group.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a public interest legal organization, and prisoners’ families sued in 2004, charging that the exorbitant rates were unconstitutional. The suit rightly embarrassed New York politicians. In January 2007, Eliot Spitzer, the state’s newly elected governor, announced that rates would be substantially lowered. The Legislature later made it illegal for the Department of Correctional Services to accept revenue in excess of its reasonable costs for operating an inmate phone system.
What was left for the New York State Court of Appeals to decide was whether family members were due refunds. They contended that the excessive fees were an illegal tax that violated inmates’ equal protection rights. This week, the court, by a 5-to-1 vote, rejected the suit.
The decision is regrettable. But even the majority noted that the plaintiffs had strong arguments that the high rates were bad policy because they made it difficult for inmates to maintain family and community ties, and that released prisoners who lack these ties are more likely to return to a life of crime.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
The New York Times