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Inmates Sue Over High Phone Costs

July 7, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Inmates in seven states are suing over the high cost of making phone calls from prison.

They are challenging the deals under which a state or county government gets as much as 60 cents on the dollar from a telephone company that is given exclusive rights to handle all calls from behind bars.

AT&T Corp. spokesman Tom Hopkins said that the highinmate rates _ in Indiana, $3.95 for the initial long-distance hookup, plus 69 cents a minute _ are necessary to pay for the accompanying security measures.

But critics consider the leasing commissions legalized kickbacks and point to Nebraska, where inmates’ long-distance collect calls cost just 19 cents a minute while being subject to similar security controls.

``It’s gouging and profiteering,″ said Stephen Seliger, a Chicago lawyer involved in class-action lawsuits against three states and Corrections Corp. of America, a company that runs 70 prisons nationwide.

Nashville-based CCA declined to comment.

Class-action lawsuits have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Mexico, New York, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

The contracts have become a significant source of revenue for states. Indiana took in $6.3 million last year from all state pay phones, most of them in prisons. New York made $25 million; California $24 million; and Illinois $12 million.

While some states, including Oregon, Florida and New York, require that at least some of the state’s profits pay for inmate-related programs, others do not. The 53 percent cut of revenue that Indiana gets under its contract with AT&T goes into the state’s general fund to pay for everything from renovations to the Statehouse to Y2K computer compliance.

Nebraska has never accepted commissions. It has a contract with Sprint that allows for the same security measures common in other states _ including prisoner ID numbers, pre-approved call lists and monitoring of the calls, all of which must be collect.

``We decided that we didn’t want to make money at the expense of the inmates,″ said Steve King, a Nebraska Corrections Department spokesman.

In Indiana, 38-year-old Selena Kingsley racked up $7,000 in phone bills during the four years her husband was imprisoned on drug charges. She said she still owes the phone company, and the costs ruined her financially.

``They espouse this theory of wanting to keep families together, and the only way we had to keep in contact was the telephone,″ she said. ``The phone companies have got you. They know you’ll accept the calls.″

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