The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Families of Prisoners Sue New York, MCI for Phone Call Scheme

by Shreema Mehta

Jan. 3, 2007 – Family members of New York prisoners are going to court over an agreement between the state Department of Corrections and the phone company MCI Worldcom.

Next week, the New York State Court of Appeals will hear arguments from lawyers representing family members of prisoners, the New York State Defenders Association, and other advocacy groups wishing to reinstate a case that was dismissed last year.

As previously reported by The NewStandard, MCI is the only phone company operating pay phones in New York State Department of Corrections (DoC) facilities. Inmates are only allowed to make outgoing collect calls, which cost 16 cents per minute plus a flat surcharge of $3 dollars for each call.

According to the Campaign for Telephone Justice, a New York City-based group working to eliminate the DOC commission, the prison rate is six times the market rate for collect phone calls.

MCI pays the DoC 57.5 percent of the revenues it brings in from prison calls. According to court filings, New York received $109 million from the commission over roughly five years. It used the revenue primarily to fund healthcare for prisoners.

In its appeal of the case, the plaintiffs argue that the telephone fees are a "way for the state to alleviate the burden of funding the state prison system by shifting a disproportionate and punitive share of that cost to the family members and friends" of prisoners.

According to court documents, the plaintiffs also argue that the Department "usurped" the power of the state legislative branch and violated the equal protection and due process rights of prisoners’ families by imposing what amounts to a tax on calls made from prison.

A New York state court upheld a dismissal of the claims last January.

Many states, including California and Missouri, have reduced or eliminated state commissions for phone calls.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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