Petition and public hearing address the high cost and low quality of prison telephone service

The telephone service provided to prisoners is notoriously expensive and of poor quality. Prisoners’ Legal Services and the firm of Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg and Garin, LLP, filed a petition before the Department of Telecommunications and Cable (DTC) on behalf of prisoners, their families, attorneys, and other users of prison telephone service, asking the DTC to limit telephone rates and to investigate the poor quality of prison telephone service. Our firm is one of the petitioners.

We are a civil rights firm that brings lawsuits, including class action lawsuits, on behalf of prisoners. We have numerous clients incarcerated across the state. The telephone is the most practical way for us to communicate with our clients. Our work depends upon reliable phone service with prisoners. Prisoners depend on the phone to inform us of important developments and to seek legal advice in a timely manner. However, the service we pay for—and we pay extravagantly—is not reliable. Calls are occasionally dropped. The connection is frequently poor. Sometimes our clients sound impossibly quiet. Other times there is constant static on the line. We often ask prisoners to hang up and try calling again. Sometimes this solves the problem, sometimes it doesn’t. 

The high cost of prisoner phone calls places burdens on attorneys, prisoners, and in some instances all taxpayers. The cost imposes yet another financial disincentive—and there are many—for private attorneys to represent prisoners, whose civil legal needs are greatly underserved. Because prisoners are typically liable for the costs of a lawsuit when it is successful, any recovery they obtain is reduced by the amount of phone costs incurred. In some cases, such as civil rights cases in which the prisoner prevails, the costs of the litigation are borne by the government that funds the prison being sued. In other words, taxpayers foot the bill.

The phone is one of the primary ways prisoners connect with their loved ones. For prisoners, better communication means better commitment to their communities. It encourages rehabilitation. Our office is concerned that the prohibitive cost and poor quality of phone service punishes families and communities as well as prisoners.

There is a public hearing about this issue on Thursday, July 19, 2012, from 10:00-5:00 at 1000 Washington Street, Hearing Room E, in Boston. All are welcome to attend. If you wish to submit written comments to the DTC, contact Alphonse Kamanzi of Prisoners’ Legal Services at 617-482-2773. After the public hearing, the DTC will decide whether to dismiss the case or let it go forward. Please sign a petition showing your support for a reduction in charges. Just go to the Smart on Crime website and click “sign petition.”

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