The gouging game

A contract between the Department of Corrections and MCI places an unfair burden on Florida inmates' families.

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 11:28 p.m.

What is it with the state of Florida's willingness to treat telephone customers so shabbily? It allows residential customers to be taken advantage of. And then it takes advantage of citizens on the outside of the prison system who have friends or family on the inside.

Last year, the Legislature changed the law to allow the largest residential telephone rate in state history. Not exactly in the spirit of the season, the Public Service Commission handily approved the rate increase just before Christmas. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist believed the law was so unfair that he intervened at the PSC hearing - and is appealing the decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, The Miami Herald reported that a Seattle-based human rights magazine is suing the Florida Department of Corrections in federal court. The magazine has been banned from the state's prison system because it contains an advertisement that tells inmates how to avoid a high-priced long-distance service and use a

lower-priced service to make collect calls instead.

A DOC memo said Prison Legal News contains "advertisements that encourage phone companies other than those assigned to the institution."

Roughly translated: The state could lose a big pile of money if this catches on.

MCI is the state-authorized long-distance carrier. An inmate can make a collect call for $4 for five minutes - an 80-cent-a-minute rate that would send anyone with a free choice to a competitor. The state then gets a cut of the profit for allowing MCI to provide the service.

For the 2003 fiscal year, it was a tidy sum indeed: $16.6 million.

The Prison Legal News offers an ad for Outside Connection. Using what's termed "call routing technology," the company sets up a local telephone number that an inmate can access from prison. When that number is dialed, the call is rerouted to the inmate's friend or family member. A company spokesman said bills are cut by half or more in most cases.

"It's a perfectly legal way to help prisoners' families avoid being gouged with unconscionable long-distance rates," said Mickey Gendler, attorney for Prison Legal News, to The Herald. The Florida Justice Institute is also representing the magazine in court. Institute attorney Randall Berg said the state's ban on the magazine "is the kind of censorship you'd expect in Cuba or Iraq, but not in America."

Set up in mid-2002 by an ex-convict who was upset by the high rates his parents had to pay for his calls from prison, Outside Connection is accustomed to such shenanigans by prison officials trying to protect their telephone gold mine.

MCI had a contract to provide service to New York's state prison, and blocked telephone numbers set up by Outside Connection. And the state of New York's corrections system declared the service an illegal company, and, citing security concerns, instituted its own blocking of calls.

A spokesman for the Florida DOC told The Herald that DOC Secretary James Crosby recently stepped in to help the friends and families of inmates. "MCI wanted to increase the rate recently, but DOC Secretary Crosby said it was high enough," the spokesman said.

It sure was. What a prince of a fellow.

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