NY's top court rejects prison phone rate refunds

AP News
Posted: Nov 23, 2009 12:22 PM

New York's highest court ruled Monday that families forced to pay high phone rates to talk to relatives in state prison won't receive refunds for the cost.

The lawsuit was first brought by the inmates' families in 2004.

In a 5-1 decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's ruling that the families failed to assert legitimate claims under the state constitution.

The court found that the fee was bad public policy, but didn't qualify as being unconstitutional.

Defense organizations and relatives of inmates argued that the state had illegally collected millions of dollars through a prison telephone service contract. They said the state's contract with MCI Worldcom Communication violated the state constitution. The contract has since been taken over by Verizon.

"We're very disappointed," said Rachel Meeropol, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. The center has represented families in the case.

"We agree with the dissent _ that when the state uses its policy power to coerce people to paying money for the benefit of talking to their loved ones _ that the constitution has been violated," Meeropol said.

For years, families paid a $3 surcharge for long distance calls within the state and a $1.58 surcharge for local calls. The cost per minute depended on the time of day and the distance of the call and ranged from about 7 cents to 36 cents a minute. The contract was amended in 2003 to set a new flat rate for calls _ $3 per call plus 16 cents per minute for all calls, most of them from upstate prisons to relatives in the New York City area.

With the average 19-minute call costing $6, families were paying $300 to $400 in monthly charges, according to the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice.

The arrangement was ended by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007, and since then, rates dropped by about half.

New York isn't the only state to have phone contracts like this.

"Almost every state has a similar type of arrangement," Meeropol said. "New York is actually in the lead for creating a legislative fix for this."

A call to the attorney representing the Department of Correctional Services wasn't immediately returned.