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Washington State Regulatory Agency Finds AT&T Failed to Disclose Prison Collect Call Rates

Washington State Regulatory Agency Finds AT&T Failed to Disclose Prison Collect Call Rates

by Derek Gilna and Brandon Sample

On March 31, 2011, AT&T Communications of the Pacific Northwest was found guilty by the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission of failing to disclose charges for collect calls from various Washington State prisons. According to the Commission’s final order, “based on undisputed facts [the] automated operator services platform used at the prisons ... did not make rate quotes available to consumers as required by Commission rules.”

The Commission referred its conclusions to King County Superior Court for additional fact finding and the ultimate disposition of the claims against AT&T. Sandy Judd and Tara Herivel, who had accepted calls from Washington prisoners, had initially filed the complaint in Superior Court in 2000. The case was referred to the Commission because it has primary jurisdiction over the billing practices of operator service providers (OSPs).

The Commission found that “AT&T violated Commission regulations 480-120-141(5)(a)(1991) and WAC 480-120-141(2)(b)(1999) for collect calls ... [by prisoners] at the Washington State Reformatory, Airway Heights, McNeil Island Penitentiary, or Clallam Bay correctional facilities by failing to verbally advise the consumers [who accepted collect calls from prisoners] to request or obtain the rates or charges for the call.” The court will determine what damages should be assessed, if any.

The Commission determined that although other entities were involved in the processing of the calls, AT&T was the primary OSP because it had the direct business relationship with the consumer of the operator services, regardless of which company owned the physical facilities used to provide those services. AT&T had argued, unsuccessfully, that an OSP was a company that provided the physical connection to the local or long distance company to complete the calls. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.16].

The Commission concluded that an OSP is the entity that provides the connection to persons who are parties to the call, particularly the called party who accepts and pays for the service or connection provided. This finding was significant given that other telecommunications companies, such as T-Netix, Verizon and Quest, were often involved with completing the collect calls at some stage in the process.

The Commission also found persuasive the fact that in 1992, AT&T had entered into a contract with the Washington Department of Corrections to provide telecommunications services and equipment for various prisons and work release centers. Additionally, the software utilized by AT&T “did not allow the consumer receiving an operator-assisted collect call from [prisoners] ... to request or obtain the rates applicable to the call, nor did that platform verbally advise the consumer how to receive a rate quote.”

The Commission’s order is significant because it indicates that AT&T may be held liable for abusive practices associated with the provision of telephone services at Washington State prisons. As reported in PLN’s April 2011 cover story, there is systemic fraud, abuse and collusion throughout the prison phone service industry. See: Sandy Judd and Tara Herivel v. AT&T Communications of the Pacific Northwest, Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, Docket No. UT-042022.

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Related legal case

Sandy Judd and Tara Herivel v. AT&T Communications of the Pacific Northwest