A D.C. advocacy group filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday accusing Corrections Corp. of America and five telephone carriers of enriching themselves by charging exorbitant rates for calls made by inmates from the company's prison facilities.
The suit attacks contractual arrangements made by the private prison firm with MCI, AT&T and other carriers to handle all outgoing pay-phone calls made by prisoners. Inmates' calls to their families and friends incur costs that far exceed those that are available in the highly competitive free market.
The litigation marked the latest grievance voiced by area advocates and families about CCA, which has a contract with the D.C. government to house 1,400 of the District's prisoners, 1,200 of whom are incarcerated at a facility in Youngstown, Ohio. CCA is the nation's biggest private prison company, with 73,000 inmates in 82 facilities.
Similar suits have been filed in New Mexico and other states, as advocacy groups target a practice that only in recent years has become prevalent in prisons. The D.C. case was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of prisoners, their families and several attorneys, alleging that the rates violate prisoners' rights as well as antitrust laws. It seeks to lower the rates and provide restitution and damages to those now footing the bills.
According to the lawsuit, families and friends who want to maintain contact with prisoners are incurring hundreds of dollars in monthly phone bills because of what it contends are exorbitant rates and connection fees. Prisons maintain control of phone systems, and inmates must either make collect calls or use debit cards. Incoming calls generally are not permitted, so outside discount services are of no use.
Rates typically run 60 cents per minute, with connection charges of roughly $3 per call. The prisoners' advocates contended that families could find rates of 4 cents per minute on the open market and that the rate setup causes them great hardship.
"We believe that family ties are important, more important than the profits of private prison companies and the telephone companies they do business with," said Eric R. Lotke, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, which is pursuing the suit as part of a national coalition of attorneys and prisoners' advocates.
CCA officials issued a statement defending the charges, saying the rates are comparable to those charged by publicly run facilities. They cited security requirements and the need for operator assistance as major cost-incurring factors. The phone carriers have offered similar explanations about the higher charges.
In 1994, the District canceled a contract for long-distance service on 1,100 pay phones in city buildings and prisons and on street corners after learning that a Bethesda firm that was the phone service carrier had been charging some consumers up to five times as much as the previous one.
Pay phone contracts are major revenue producers for cities, prison systems and airports, because providers compete to pay commissions to get the high-volume business.
The lawsuit filed yesterday cited the experiences of seven prisoners and 16 family members, all listed as plaintiffs, in condemning what it called an "unconscionable arrangement." Although most of the allegations concern calls made by inmates from places such as Ohio, New Mexico and Arizona, the lawsuit said even a local call coming from CCA's Correctional Treatment Facility in the District costs families $1.75. The charges result in shorter and fewer calls for many inmates, the suit said, cutting off access.
"It's a strain on the whole family," complained Ethel Peoples, a retired clerk who lives on Capitol Hill. Her son, Earl, is serving time in Youngstown. "You're limited to how long you can talk because of the price. They are really getting rich off of us."
Dorothy Wade, whose son, Charles, is imprisoned at a CCA facility in New Mexico, echoed that assessment. "He calls home every other day," she said. "It's a burden on all of us, but we don't want to not accept his calls. We want him involved in his family."