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MA DOC Uses New Phone System

By Paul Wright

As part of the nationwide trend towards more restrictive and more expensive prison phone systems, the Massachusetts DOC signed a contract with NYNEX on January 27, 1994, for the provision of phone services to Massachusetts prisons. The new phone system includes monitoring and taping of all calls; the pre-approval by the prison warden of all numbers to be called; the listing, by name, of each person the prisoner will call; the limiting of total personal numbers to ten per prisoner; limiting of all attorney numbers to five. All calls are made by a recorded voice announcing that the call is coming from a prison. The length of calls is limited and the new system disallows use of third party and call waiting services. Prisoners seeking to change or add a number to their approved list (say a relative moves) can only do so once every three months.

In order to use the system prisoners must accept a Personal Identification Number (PINS). Massachusetts prisoners have actively resisted the imposition of the new phone system., which went on line in April, 1994. At Bay State, a prison housing mainly long term prisoners, of 266 prisoners only 17 took PINS and within two months after that only 6 had made calls. At other prisons, such as Shirley and Walpole, where some 10-20% of prisoners took PINS there has been little phone use. So far there has been no information as to what effect the phone boycott is having on the DOC.

In the April, 1994, issue of PLN, I reported the successful phone boycott by Louisiana prisoners protesting the increase in phone rates at the prison. At the height of the Louisiana boycott, calls were down to about 500-600 a day from over 2,000 a day before the boycott. The loss in revenues forced the phone contractor, Global-Link, to reduce its rates. There are however important differences. In Louisiana the prisoners' position had been supported by that state's utilities commission and unhappy prison officials who maintained Global Link was not complying with the contract it had signed, and concerned only rates. In Massachusetts the new phone policy is part of a tightening noose on prisoners' collective neck imposed by reactionary governor William Weld who has vowed to make that state's prisons like "a tour through the nine circles of hell." (See PLN, August, 1994). Illustrative of that was the fact that the MA DOC signed the phone contract with NYNEX on January 27, 1994, and held the required public hearings on the matter March 2, 1994. The DOC admits that the "hearings" are only for promulgation purposes and that people who testify at such hearings have to understand that they are only for "public ventings" rather than anything of substance. So much for "democracy."

In addition to the boycott by prisoners, Massachusetts Legal Correctional services is in the process of filing suit challenging several aspects of the new phone system. According to MCLS counsel, Jim Pingeon, the main focus of the litigation will be on the inclusion of monitoring and taping provisions in the MA DOC rules on prisoner phone use. These provisions violate the Massachusetts wiretapping statute, MGL Chapter 272, § 9SC. While the DOC argues that the prisoners' acceptance of a PIN constitutes "consent" to the monitoring, MCLS's position is that such "consent" is not valid because no choice is given. Of particular concern is the limiting effect this will have on prisoners' ability to communicate with the outside, especially the media, attorneys, civil rights groups, etc. Once the litigation is filed we will report that as well.

Nationally the attack on prisoners' phone access is taking several tacts. [See: BOP Phone Litigation Update on page 10] First, are excessive rates, which are usually in excess of filed rates and thus illegal, which allows kickbacks to the DOCs. Second, restricting the number of people that can be called or communicated with, especially the media and civil rights groups. This allows a greater control on information and keeps the outside from knowing what is going on inside. Third, chilling prisoners' speech as to what they actually say by recording and monitoring the calls. The net effect of these practices is to attempt to further isolate and alienate prisoners, cut them off from society and their families as well as keep society ignorant of prison conditions. The excessive phone rates serve as a highly regressive tax on those least able to afford it: prisoner's families. We have regularly reported on phone issues in the past and will do so in the future. Please keep us posted of any local developments in your state. The April, 1993, issue of PLN had an article by myself outlining the relevant case law on phone litigation. Copies are still available, send $1.00 to cover copying and postage and specify the issue.

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