Inmates at the Bristol County Jail in Dartmouth, Massachusetts will get another day in court to determine whether they will continue paying exorbitant rates for phone calls to loved ones and attorneys.
In 2020, a federal court judge ruled in favor of the Bristol County Sheriff, dismissing a class action lawsuit filed by LSC and co-counsel aimed at upending a lucrative contract between the sheriff’s office and a company offering phone call services via the internet.
The contract brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the sheriff’s office but results in high costs for inmates and their families, with a simple 10-minute phone call from the Bristol County Jail to a loved one elsewhere in the state costing as much as $5.
Federal court reverses itself
LSC and co-counsel asked the Federal District Court judge to reconsider her ruling and in late March the Court reversed itself, acknowledging that the statute the federal court used as the basis for its decision had not actually been used by either side in arguing the appeal.
The case has now been sent to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to certify one key question: does the sheriff’s office have the right under state law to collect revenue using inmate calling services?
The contract is with the Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Securus Technologies, Inc., a Texas-based company that provides phone calling services for inmates across the country. The suit was brought on behalf of four named plaintiffs – two of whom are family members of inmates.
Is collecting fees legal?
Plaintiffs attorneys argue that the contract between the sheriff’s office and Securus represents an illegal kickback scheme that greatly increases the cost of calls made from the county jail. During the period 2016-2020, for example, the contract called for Securus to pay the sheriff’s office a lump sum of $200,000 plus $820,00 to cover costs.
Organizations filing the litigation were the Consumer Protection Clinic at LSC, the National Consumer Law Center, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and Bailey & Glasser.
In an earlier ruling, a Massachusetts state court found that two different provisions of Massachusetts law, when read together, provide the necessary legislative authority for the inmate calling system provided by Securus Technologies to be used and to charge fees for the service.
LSC and co-counsel have argued that Massachusetts’ law prohibits sheriffs from charging prisoners fees to subsidize the cost of their incarceration unless such fees are authorized by the legislature. Rather than collect phone call fees directly, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office hired Securus, a company providing phone service over the internet, to extract revenues from the individuals who accept collect phone calls from prisoners, which are unrelated to the cost of providing the phone service. Those revenues, called “commissions,” are then redirected to the sheriff’s office.
An important social issue – made worse by COVID
“This is an incredibly important social issue,” says Roger Bertling, who heads LSC’s Consumer Protection Clinic. “Many jurisdictions are offering these same calls for free, or for as little as two cents per minute. Prisoners – who may not have even been convicted of a crime – need the ability to be able to reach out by phone to their attorneys and to their family. COVID has made this situation even worse, with in-person visits restricted. “
If this case is ultimately successful, it could have an impact on thousands of inmates in Massachusetts and in other states whose correction facilities have entered into similar phone service provider agreements.
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