Law Court Will Consider Prison Phone Rate Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
January 14, 2009 12:00 am

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PORTLAND – The issue of jurisdiction over the phone rates that are charged to Maine prisoners will be considered by the state’s highest court in oral arguments set for Thursday, Jan. 15. The state Department of Corrections is appealing a ruling by the state’s Public Utilities Commission that the phone system is a utility under the PUC’s jurisdiction.

The PUC acted in June, responding to a complaint from Barbara Pierce and other family members of Maine inmates, who said that the inflated rates for prisoners’ phone calls make it difficult for them to keep in touch with their family members. The Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation has participated in deliberations before the PUC on behalf of all Maine inmates.

“This case is important because the prison system should not place financial barriers in the way of inmates’ ability to maintain their support and connection with family and friends on the outside,” said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation. “For inmates, being able to keep up their contacts with their family members outside increases their chance for success when they are released.”

The matter of prison phone rates first came to the PUC in 2007, when Pierce and others filed a complaint stating that the rates charged for calls, connection charges, and prepaid account maintenance were unjust, unreasonable and unfairly discriminatory under Maine law.

While the generally-available rate for local calls in Maine is $.03/minute, the Maine Department of Corrections charges family members $.30, as well as fees ranging from $.95 to $8 to access the telephone system. The Department has acknowledged that the telephone rates include a 50 percent surcharge (or “commission”), which produces revenues to the Department of Corrections beyond the cost of providing the phone service.

Attorneys for the complainants, including Alan Stone, of Skelton, Taintor and Abbott, argued before the PUC in June saying that the PUC has the experience and expertise to judge the legality and appropriateness of the phone rates. Maine statutes require that phone rates be “just and reasonable.”

“We think PUC review is necessary here because it is unfair that the families, friends and attorneys have to pay these rates that are 1000 percent higher than the usual rates, while the Department of Corrections makes a profit,” said Heiden. “That is simply not right.”

The arguments will be heard at 9:45 a.m. in the court in Portland on Thursday, Jan. 15.

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