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February 3, 2013 at 1:00 PM

AT&T to pay Washington prisoners’ families $45 million in telephone class action settlement

UPDATED 3:50 p.m.

AT&T has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit involving collect calls made from Washington State prisons for $45 million, making at least 70,000 families eligible for payments.

The settlement, filed late Friday in King County Superior Court, ends a 12-year lawsuit that pin-balled between the state Supreme Court, the state Utilities and Trade Commission and King County Superior Court. Filed in 2000, the lawsuit accused AT&T and other phone companies of failing to disclose exorbitant rates for collect calls from prison. The case settled just as it was set to go to trial in King County to determine damages.

The lawsuit covers collect calls made between 1996 and 2000 from Department of Corrections facilities. The lawsuit was filed by family and friends of Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and a former inmate in Washington State. Wright estimated that between 70,000 and 172,000 people could eligible for refunds, which include full reimbursement of the call charges, plus $200 per person.

At the time, those charges were $3.95 for the first minute and $.90 for each additional minute, according to Seattle attorney Chris Youtz, who pressed the class action case. After 20 minutes, the calls ended, requiring a new call, and a new surcharge. “The rates were ridiculous,” said Youtz.

Youtz said at least three people wracked up $20,000 in charges, according an analysis done during discovery in the case; others had $10,000 bills. Newspapers, such as The Seattle Times, and Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit that monitors prison conditions, also likely will receive refunds for calls received from prisoners. If there is money left over after all class members who can be found are reimbursed – a big if, given the length of time that has gone by – some of the remainder will go to the Legal Foundation of Washington, which helps low-income people groups get lawyers, as well as to groups supporting prisoners’ families.

Legal notices will be filed notifying people of the potential refund. AT&T spokesman Marty Richter sent the following statement:

While AT&T continues to believe that it followed all rules at issue in the lawsuit, we are pleased to see the litigation resolved in a way that, among other things, supports legal assistance for low income residents of Washington State and educational assistance for families of prison inmates in the state.

Youtz acknowledged the lawsuit – which attacked disclosure of the rates – was an “indirect way” to get at the charges themselves. Because the agreement between AT&T (and other telephone companies) and the Washington State Department of Corrections was approved by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, a legal principal called the “filed rate doctrine” limits direct challenges, he said.

But it is an overdue victory against usury telephone rates charged to prisoners’ families. As with the DOC, telephone companies granted a monopoly to handle prison calls gave state prison departments a kickback – a revenue stream on the backs of prisoners’ loved ones.  (Washington’s DOC has since reduced its calling charges).

These arrangements directly undermine good policy: prisoners who maintain contact with their families have lower recidivism rates when they return to society.

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