by Paul Wright
In 1992, the Washington Department of Corrections signed its first prison phone contract with AT&T that required the company to give the DOC a “commission” kickback in exchange for the monopoly contract. Previously, AT&T provided phone services to the DOC with no kickback, using live operators. I wrote about this in the April 1993 issue of PLN, in an article titled “DOC Phone Rip Off” (available on the PLN website, as are all our back issues). Twenty-six years later, prisons and jails in Washington State are still receiving kickbacks as prisoners and their families continue being price-gouged by prison phone service providers and their government collaborators.
This month’s cover story explores the extent and depth of this practice in Washington State and the advent of video calling, as prison telecoms devise new means to monetize human contact between prisoners and their families. Prisoners held in Washington county jails and their loved ones continue to pay exorbitant fees for mediocre telecom services. Further, a growing number of jails are banning in-person visits and instead providing fee-based video calling – a trend not just in Washington but across the U.S.
On September 15, 2018, we filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Prison Legal News v. Florida DOC Secretary, which upheld the censorship of PLN by the Florida DOC based on our advertising content. By October 15 at least 11 amicus (friend of the court) briefs, by over 100 groups and individuals, will be submitted on our behalf urging the Court to grant review. We will report in more detail on the amicus briefs and what has happened in the case; given the current briefing schedule, we expect the Supreme Court to grant or deny review by January 4, 2019.
The legal team representing Prison Legal News and our parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, in our FDOC case is headed by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement at Kirkland Ellis LLP, and former White House associate counsel Michael McGinley, Roger Dixon and Lindsay Ray at Dechert LLP. Additionally, HRDC attorneys Sabarish Neelakanta, Masimba Mutamba, Dan Marshall and Deborah Golden, as well as Florida Justice Institute attorneys Randall Berg and Dante Trevisani, are on the pleadings. A big thanks to our legal team that has gotten us this far; this is what we have spent our summer working on.
I would also like to thank all our readers who have supported us in this fight since 2009 when the Florida DOC began censoring PLN again. We still need your help to keep this fight going. I have been doing free speech litigation against prison officials for 30 years now around the country. This is the longest, hardest battle against prison censorship we have ever had. We are closing in on almost ten years of censorship and have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money ensuring Florida prisoners can receive Prison Legal News. HRDC attorneys alone have spent over 2,000 hours litigating this case, not including our co-counsel.
By now you should have received (or will soon receive) HRDC’s annual fundraiser, which includes our 2017 annual report and news clips about HRDC and what we are doing on behalf of prisoners and their families. Please make a donation to support our work. We get almost no foundation funding. All the donations we receive for projects like fighting for lower phone rates, for prisoners’ right to receive mail and in-person visits, to not be housed in toxic prisons, etc., come from people like you. All we do is criminal justice reform; we have no other agenda than to serve the people who are victimized, monetized and preyed upon by the criminal justice system and its corporate collaborators. Every penny helps and no donations are too big or too small. Your support really does make a difference.
Why is it important to support a criminal justice reform organization like the Human Rights Defense Center when so many others are vying for your attention and donations? As longtime readers of PLN know, we very rarely run op-ed type articles. We have always used our limited space to bring our readers hard news and legal coverage so they can have timely, accurate information to advocate for themselves. This issue of PLN includes my op-ed opposing Amendment 4 (see p.32 in this issue), which would amend the Florida Constitution to give convicted felons the right to vote after they have served their sentences, including probation and parole. Critically, the ballot initiative excludes anyone convicted of murder or a felony sex offense, and if passed will enshrine this bigotry and discrimination into the Florida Constitution.
Amendment 4 is being heavily supported by the Florida ACLU, which has poured at least $5 million into the campaign. Altogether, the supporters of Amendment 4 are spending around $16 million to get the initiative passed. I started HRDC, first known as Prisoners’ Legal News, in a Washington prison cell in 1990 while serving a 25-year, four month sentence for murder. We have always advocated for the rights of all prisoners, not just some. And we have never argued or sought to advance anyone’s rights at the expense of someone else’s rights.
Long before it was popular, we have lived and breathed the idea that it should be “all of us or none,” and when people support HRDC that is what they get. Many of the organizations supporting Amendment 4 are usually our friends and allies on criminal justice issues, including the Florida ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Florida Justice Institute, the Leadership Conference, the Center for Community Change, and the Alliance for Safety and Justice. Even Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which started All of Us or None, is supporting Amendment 4 – even though their executive director was convicted of murder. But friends can and do have disagreements.
So far no one has been able to tell me why I should not be able to vote. Ironically, the Washington ACLU went to court to restore my civil rights, including the right to vote, while today the Florida ACLU is trying to disenfranchise me by supporting Amendment 4. If the ballot initiative passes, no one thinks that anyone is going to be spending $16 million to amend the state constitution sometime in the future to enfranchise murderers and sex offenders. Apparently “some of us” is the new mantra, rather than all of us or none. Prisoners and ex-prisoners lost out on the most important vote when the backers of Amendment 4 decided to throw murderers and sex offenders under the bus for the sake of political expediency.
HRDC’s opposition to Amendment 4 is modest, but for 28 years we have advocated for the rights of ALL prisoners, ALL their family members and ALL ex-offenders. We have never picked and chosen; we have never sought to advance anyone’s rights at the expense of someone else’s. It may not be popular, but we think that’s the right thing to do. I don’t know what will happen when Amendment 4 goes to the voters this November. But I look at American history where people have fought for the right to vote, and excluding people, discriminating against people and pitting one disenfranchised, impoverished group against another has not been how women, young Americans, African Americans, etc. have gained the right to vote, nor how the LGBTQ community has fought for marriage equality.
Your support of HRDC helps support principled advocacy that embodies the notion of all of us or none and the concept that everyone has human rights, everyone deserves second chances and yes, everyone deserves the right to vote. Even murderers and sex offenders, and people who are still incarcerated, too. That has been our position since our very first issue of PLN in May 1990. So please make a donation to support our work. It can and does make a difference.
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