Telephone companies sued over prisoners' collect calls

Telephone companies that handle collect calls from inmates at Washington state prisons have been accused of violating consumer-protection laws.

The lawsuit, filed by two relatives of inmate and prison activist Paul Wright in King County Superior Court, accuses phone companies of disregarding a state law which requires that each recipient of a collect call be told the cost before being asked to accept the charges.

Collect calls are the only way state-prison inmates can call outside local calling areas.

Out-of-state calls through AT&T's inmate program cost 69 cents a minute plus a $3.95 connection charge, while in-state long-distance collect calls run 59 cents with a $3 charge, company spokeswoman LeeAnn Kuster said.

Less-expensive alternatives, including AT&T's 1-800 collect system, which costs 40 cents a minute with connection charges ranging from $2.99 to $5.50 for out-of-state calls, are not available to inmates.

One reason prison calls cost more is the additional security controls, said Jeannine Hansen, another spokeswoman.

Wright noted that much of the revenue from such calls is turned over to the prison system.

Prisoner-rights groups in New Mexico, New York and Washington, D.C., have filed lawsuits challenging such contracts and the price of calls this year.

The Washington state prison system received $5.2 million last year under contracts that provided the state with up to 45 percent of gross collect-call revenues, said Veltry Johnson, a Corrections Department spokesman.

The money is split between funds for crime victims and prisoner improvements such as recreation supplies, crafts equipment and cable-television hookups.