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$7.5 Million Fine Recommended in Florida Jail Phone Overcharges

by David M. Reutter

Florida’s Public Service Commission has recommended that TCG Public Communications, Inc. (TCG) pay $7.5 million for the improper disconnection of jail prisoners’ telephone calls. The recommendation was made in a September 8, 2008 memorandum following an investigation into complaints made by family and friends of prisoners at the Miami-Dade Pretrial Detention Center (MDPDC).

The Commission began investigating after receiving a complaint on March 18, 2004 that alleged the phone system at MDPDC was malfunctioning, causing prisoners’ calls to disconnect prematurely. As a result, the complainant incurred $900 in additional phone charges between May 2003 and January 2004.

TCG was a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T Communications of the Southern States, Inc. All prisoner calls from MCPDC were “collect only,” resulting in a surcharge of $2.25 for 30-minute local calls and $1.75 for interstate toll calls plus an additional per-minute charge.

When a call would disconnect prematurely the prisoner would have to dial the party again, resulting in assessment of another surcharge. The disconnects were caused by a serious problem with TCG’s “third-party call detection” software, which resulted in approximately $6.3 million in improper charges. The Commission’s investigation revealed that TCG was aware of the problem but failed to correct it, instead profiting from the unjustified surcharges for over six years.

Commission staff tested MDPDC’s prisoner telephone system on September 22, 2004. All of the test calls were improperly disconnected, with all but one resulting in a recorded voice announcement that stated “custom calling features are not allowed on this phone.” There were no custom calling features on the phone used during the test.

When AT&T was notified of the results, the company requested a retest with TCG officials. The results were similar. On November 18, 2004, AT&T informed the Commission that the premature disconnections resulted from “sensitivity settings so high that it was interpreting regular background noises, such as the inmate or called party breathing, as three-way call attempts.” AT&T said it regretted the customers’ experience, but it had no control over the level of the sensitivity setting.

According to AT&T, MDPDC officials were responsible for the setting. MDPDC, however, claimed it had no contractual agreement concerning the sensitivity setting for the jail’s phone system, and that AT&T had “requested to raise the sensitivity settings for security purposes” in October 2003.

When the Commission staff retested MDPDC’s prisoner phone system on July 17 and 18, 2007, a new software program had been installed and was operating properly. “It is clear that TCG was fully aware of the software’s propensity for error” prior to installing the new system, the Commission found. Therefore, it was recommended that the company pay refunds up to the maximum amount of $6,290,450 plus interest.

The Commission also found that TCG should be assessed a penalty for “willful violation” and “refusal to comply” with Rule 25-24.515(21) of the Florida Administrative Code, which prohibits terminating prisoner calls “until after a minimum elapsed time of ten minutes.” Commission staff determined that TCG “had the ability to and did not change the three-way detection software’s sensitivity levels at its discretion.”

In addition, Florida law prohibits charging a customer for telecommunication services not provided, and requires access to communication records that are reasonably necessary for the disposition of matters within the Commission’s jurisdiction. TCG had significantly delayed producing phone call detail records.

Thus, it was recommended that TCG show cause why it should not pay $1,000 per day for 1,266 days of its knowing and willful violations, or $1,266,000. The refund and penalty, totaling over $7.5 million, was to be deposited in Florida’s General Revenue Fund.
Evidently, because it would be too difficult to locate each customer defrauded by the disconnected phone calls and determine the individual amount owed, it was deemed simpler to let the state keep the ill-gotten gains rather than TCG.

A final issue was which company should pay the $7.5 million. TCG was bought by correctional phone service provider Global Tel*Link in June 2005. The Commission said TCG must be held responsible, and Global Tel*Link and AT&T could resolve the dispute in court.

Note that the recommendations made by Commission staff are not final, and the case remains pending on the Public Service Commission’s docket. The Commission’s September 8, 2008 memorandum is available on PLN’s website.

Source: Florida Public Service Commission, Docket No. 060614

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