Orange County Sued for ‘Excessive’ Jail Phone Charges

Amid a national discussion about the cost of phone calls from jail, inmates and their family members filed a class action lawsuit Thursday against Orange County and three neighboring counties over “grossly unfair and excessive” prices for such calls.

“Tens of thousands of California jail inmates and their families, most of whom are not convicted but facing charges, are held hostage to grossly unfair and excessive phone charges, forcing them to pay these charges in order to maintain contact with their loved ones who are incarcerated,” states the federal lawsuit by a series of plaintiffs represented by attorneys Barrett Litt, Ron Kaye, Scott Rapkin, and Michael Rapkin.

“These charges are nothing but money-making schemes by counties and their jails to force family members desperately trying to maintain contact with their inmate husbands, parents and children to pay for totally unrelated jail expenses or give up their primary lifeline of communication.”

The suit was filed against Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties on behalf of inmates and their family members. It seeks a court order banning the counties from continuing to charge such fees, as well as refunds and damages for the plaintiffs.

(Click here to read the lawsuit.)

The lawsuit coincides with revelations earlier this week that two Orange County supervisors had raised serious concerns about the jail phone prices last summer, and then completely dropped their opposition when it came to a vote, after receiving maxed-out contributions from the contractor, Global Tel-Link, which is the nation’s largest prison phone company.

In total, about $85,000 in campaign contributions connected to Global Tel-Link and its lobbyist were given to the supervisors who approved the firm’s contract last November, according to research at the time by the Orange County Employees Association. That includes money from the company, its lobbyist, Christopher Townsend, and Townsend’s other clients.

Orange County spokeswoman Jean Pasco declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the county doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Jeff Hallock also declined to comment on the suit, saying the department has yet to review and analyze it. The average cost of a local call, he said, has been 18 cents per minute, with non-local calls averaging 23 cents per minute.

Orange County’s jail phones generated about $5.5 million in revenue last year, which was split between Global Tel-Link and the Sheriff’s Department. Calls from the jails cost $4 per call, regardless of length, plus a series of fees on top of that.

The bulk of spending from Orange County’s jail phone revenue – 86 percent of the $4 million last fiscal year – goes to pay staff salaries, benefits and training.

But it’s unclear which staff are paid by that revenue; Diane O’Chareon of the sheriff’s inmate services division hasn’t returned messages since last Friday seeking that information.

The discussion of jail phone prices also ties in with the larger debate over ways to reduce the likelihood of people committing crimes after they’re released from jail.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has noted that “contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism,” but “high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty,” the lawsuit states.

It also quotes FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn as saying that this system “is inequitable, it has preyed on our most vulnerable for too long, families are being further torn apart, and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated.”

The FCC took action last month to reduce the pricing, with lower costs slated to go into effect in mid-2016.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.