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Prisoner Calls Big Business in CA

Prisoners' loved ones are hit with a $3.00 surcharge [connect fee] whenever they accept a collect call from a California prisoner. The $3.00 surcharge is in addition to the per-minute billing.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved this $3.00 surcharge after MCI presented it to them. The PUC approved MCI's request because of the terms of a Master Contract called the "Public Access Telecommunications System" created by the Department of General Services. The contract was created on "correctional advice" and it deals exclusively with "public pay telephones." Yet the "public" pays only a $1.05 surcharge when using a pay phone. Only those accepting collect calls from CA prisoners are forced to pay the $3.00 surcharge. Prisoners' families are also denied freedom of choice known as equal access, preference of carriers, or discounts available to other MCI customers.

Until 1992 the commissions derived from prisoner phone calls were deposited in the Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF). According to Richard Flores, who heads the IWF for California prisons, "this was stopped because the California Penal Code does not specifically authorize this. Now the monies are being deposited into the State General Fund. The problem with this is that there is no statute authorizing that practice either.

In fiscal year 1994-95, there were an estimated 10.4 million completed calls originating from California prisons [about 6 calls per month per prisoner]. That is a total of more than $31 million in surcharges alone. A 12 percent commission is paid into the State General Fund, amounting to more than $3.7 million. That money should have gone into the IWF.

An attorney here in California is considering filing a formal complaint with the PUC challenging the inflated rates. If the outcome is not favorable there, the rate can then be challenged in court. Prisoners in all states should challenge the rate in the same manner before seeking judicial review.

California prisoners should have their families contact the Consumer Affairs Branch of the Public Utilities Commission; 505 Van Ness Avenue; San Francisco, CA 94102-3298, (415) 703-1282 to lodge their complaints.

D.R., California

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