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Phone Companies Gouge California Jail Prisoners' Families

by John E. Dannenberg

In a scenario reminiscent of the Spy versus Spy" cartoon, phone companies are gouging California jail prisoners' families with outlandish collect call rates, while prisoners are defrauding the phone companies by taking advantage of new computerized phones to clandestinely bill their defense attorneys for collect calls cleverly rerouted elsewhere.

An Associated Press investigation revealed that the average California county jail prisoner's local phone calls home cost more than seven times as much as a 50 cent pay-phone call, yielding over $120 million per year in trappings to the phone companies. From this pot, the phone companies pay nearly 50% in kickbacks to the counties for the privilege of gouging their customers - the jail phone contract going to the highest bidder of kickbacks. The annual payola to Los Angeles County alone runs nearly $17 million per year.

Perhaps the greater crime is that the burden of such calls falls upon the lower income families whose members most often land in jail. Worse yet is that when these costs become prohibitive, family contact is lost and the prisoners' broken lifeline to the community only deepens their chances of becoming stuck" in the system. Charles Carbone, an attorney with California San Francisco based prisoner-rights group Prison Focus, decried the process for [i]ts gouging of family members, those who have never committed a crime.

The total take" is staggering. Over the past five years, California counties have realized kickbacks of more than $303 million, according to data gathered from each of the 57 California counties via the Public Records Act. Specifically, in fiscal year 2002-2003, San Mateo County realized a whopping $1,375.83 per prisoner; Santa Clara County gained $719.03; Alameda County took in $521.20; Santa Cruz County accepted $468.57; and San Francisco County pocketed $451.

Bridget Stachowald, representative of the largest contractor, Texas based SBC, explained the higher costs away only by saying that jail telephone systems are more complex." Michel Hennessey, San Francisco County Sheriff, noted that some sheriffs - who find the booty easy money to fill in budget gaps dismiss this public extortion flippantly: Why do I care what the rates are? I don't have to pay them.

On the other side of the coin -literally, the proverbial dime to call home, technology-savvy prisoners desperate to contact families have outsmarted the phone companies by figuring out their new computerized systems. At the San Francisco County jails, prisoners discovered that they can fool the systems into permitting added calls after getting their defense attorneys to accept collect calls. A person calls from jail collect and [we] pick up and accept the call," said defense attorney Joe Morehead. Then the person on the other end breaks the connection, hangs up but somehow keeps the connection. I have no idea how." The attorney not only gets the bill for the $2.95 collect call, he also gets the bill for the follow-on call.

Defense attorney Ira Barg became suspicious when his August, 2004 bill was $129 significantly higher" than normal. He noted he had been getting collect calls where the caller gave their name, then either hung up or said it was a wrong number. Attorney Randy Knox reported being victimized ten times. The folks inside [have] nothing but time to come up with scams," he said. The San Francisco Bar Association has warned its members.

Conning attorneys may turn out to be an expensive business practice for the phone companies themselves. San Francisco attorney John Allured has filed suit on behalf of two local attorneys against Evercom, SBC and Verizon, alleging unfair business practices and unjust enrichment. He is also seeking class certification for all California residents who may have thus been bilked - asking for restitution and an injunction against future such charges. The respondents' answers to the suits were filed under seal to protect trade secrets. [See: PLN, July, 2004, for details.]

Colleen Dziuban, spokesperson for Correctional Billing Services, the Texas based firm handling these bills and those of over 2,000 correctional facilities in 48 states, said they will refund any fraudulent charges. As to explaining the process, Dziuban said I can't talk about it. We don't want to educate any more people on how to do it.

Sources: San Jose Mercury News; San Francisco Daily Journal.

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