Lawsuit challenges jailhouse phone fees

A new class action lawsuit filed on behalf of San Mateo County jail inmates accuses the county of charging burdensome and unnecessary fees for phone calls, hindering inmates’ attempts to keep in touch with loved ones and creating a financial hardship for families.

The lawsuit follows similar suits filed in Southern California counties over the last several months but is the first such lawsuit filed in the Bay Area. In the suit, attorneys for the plaintiffs pledged future challenges to phone call fees in Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County and Alameda County as well.

Inmate calling systems have been controversial for some time with critics alleging that they are a revenue-raising technique at the expense of vulnerable families trying to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones.

The suit was filed on Monday in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of all inmates and their families but in particular Redwood City jail inmate Alfred Banks and his wife, Shirley Banks.

Alfred Banks calls his wife twice a day, leaving her with between $300 and $350 a month in collect call charges. She had to take a part-time job at Walmart to pay for the bills, according to the suit.

The attorneys wrote in the suit:

“These unjust, unreasonable, excessive and unlawful fees work a terrible hardship on inmates, and their family, friends and associates who bear the brunt of the charges. …┬áMost inmates of San Mateo County jails are relatively poor and lack significant financial resources; they are disproportionately people of color, especially African-American and Latino; many suffer from serious mental illness.”

The plaintiffs’ representation includes Pasadena attorneys Barrett Litt and Ronald Kaye; Venice, California, attorneys Michael and Scott Rapkin; and Carol Strickman of San Francisco-based nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners With Children.

San Mateo County jail phone call charges can vary widely. In 2012, when the county was looking to switch providers, recipients of phone calls from the jails were charged $3.15 to connect and then up to 89 cents per minute, depending on the distance and length of the call.

In 2013, the county switched from Global Tel Link to Securus Technologies, according to the suit. In exchange for an exclusive contract, the company pays the county back a portion of the fees collected, including a guaranteed $795,000 and potentially more depending on the jail population, according to the suit.

California law requires that the fees collected from the use of jail phones must be deposited into an inmate welfare fund that would go to inmate education and welfare programs, but if not needed for that purpose can go to jail maintenance. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that much, and possibly most, of that fund goes to jail maintenance and not rehabilitation programs.

The attorneys argue that the practice of contracting with a private company to exclusively charge high fees for phone service is unconstitutional, violating the plaintiffs right to free association with family, amounts to an unlawful tax, and is a government-imposed monopoly.

The attorneys wrote:

“Because inmates are literally a captive market with no ability to choose another telephone company, there are no competitive market forces to constrain the prices set.”

The state of California and the Federal Communications Commission have already taken steps to roll back prices for inmate phone calls.

According to the suit, California significantly reduced prices at its state prisons in 2007, bringing in-state phone calls under 10 cents per minute and the cost of a 15-minute out-of-state phone call to about $2.

The FCC set new caps on inmate phone calls in November, setting new limits for add-on fees that jail phone providers can charge.

FCC officials wrote in a statement:

“While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty.”