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California Officials Reverse Position after Receiving Prison Phone Company Contributions

California Officials Reverse Position after Receiving Prison Phone Company Contributions

by Derek Gilna

Prisoners and members of their families filed a federal class-action lawsuit in November 2015 against officials in Orange County and three other California counties, for charging excessive jail phone rates. According to the complaint, “Tens of thousands of California jail inmates and their families, most of whom are not convicted but facing charges, are held hostage to grossly unfair and excessive phone charges, forcing them to pay these charges in order to maintain contact with their loved ones who are incarcerated.”

Exorbitant phone rates have long been targeted by prisoners’ rights advocates – such as Prison Legal News and its parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center – and after years of intense efforts, in October 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a ruling that severely limits prison and jail phone rates nationwide. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.40]. One of the many complaints made against prison phone companies is their practice of paying large amounts of money to government agencies and officials, in the form of “commission” kickbacks and campaign donations, respectively.

That was the case in Orange County, where county officials received contributions from the telephone provider for the county jail, Global Tel*Link, which appear to have led two supervisors to end their opposition to GTL’s contract with the county. County supervisors Shawn Nelson and Todd Spitzer both changed their views from vehement opposition to GTL to support of a six-month contract extension with the company in November 2014 after receiving money from the prison phone firm.

In June 2014, Nelson had noted the phone rates at the county jail were “astronomical,” while Spitzer stated, “I do believe we have to do whatever we can to make sure inmates can have good communications with their family, because when they re-enter society, those relationships are what are gonna keep them from coming back.”

Shortly after making those comments, both supervisors received $1,900 contributions from GTL, and subsequently voted in favor of extending the company’s contract. GTL also donated $2,500 to Spitzer’s Central Committee account in October 2014.

Orange County receives around $4.3 million annually from its share of phone revenue generated by GTL, in the form of kickbacks. According to a news report, most of those funds were used for staff salaries in 2014.

A local media outlet that examined campaign donations found Spitzer and his wife used $8,800 in campaign funds to travel to Hawaii in 2008, and spent over $104,000 on combined travel, groceries, restaurant meals, hotels and retail purchases in 2014. Unfortunately, Spitzer is not the only government official in the country who has apparently enriched himself as a result of campaign donations, including from companies that provide correctional services.

The new FCC regulations limiting excessive prison and jail phone rates are expected to go into effect in early 2016, unless companies like GTL and Securus challenge them through litigation and a court issues a stay.

PLN will report on the outcome of the class-action lawsuit challenging high jail phone rates in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which remains pending. See: Salazar v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:15-cv-09003-MWF-JC.


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Related legal case

Salazar v. County of Los Angeles