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Southland counties sued over ‘excessive’ phone fees in jail systems

Southland counties sued over ‘excessive’ phone fees in jail systems
A lawsuit against Los Angeles County and several nearby counties alleges that the fees for inmate phone calls are “grossly unfair and excessive.”
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Jail inmates and their families filed a lawsuit Thursday against Los Angeles County as well as nearby counties, alleging that the fees for inmate telephone calls are “grossly unfair and excessive” and amount to a moneymaking scheme for local governments.

The federal class action lawsuit — alleging violations of the state constitution and federal law — focuses on the structure of the exclusive contracts that each county signs with a telecommunications company.

In return for providing phone service in a county’s jail system, the telecommunications company typically guarantees the county a multimillion-dollar “commission” and a percentage of all revenue above the minimum fee.

For example, to L.A. County, which has the largest jail system in the U.S., the Alabama firm Global Tel-Link guarantees a payment of $15 million or two-thirds of designated phone revenue — whichever is greater, according to the suit. To Orange County government coffers, GTL hands over a minimum annual payment of $4.35 million, according to the suit.

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The lawsuit alleges that to finance such commissions, inmates and their families pay exorbitant prices to stay in contact, and that such fees disproportionately affect minorities and low-income families.

“The counties are reaping the majority of the profit — and they have a fiduciary obligation to protect the most vulnerable people,” said Ron Kaye, one of the attorneys who filed the suit. “It’s become abundantly clear that this is an illegal tax on the poorest of the poor, that can least afford it.”

The lawsuit comes one month after the Federal Communications Commission, citing the effect of family communication on reducing recidivism, decided to cap rates for local calls and trimmed by up to 50% the cap on interstate long-distance calls.

Star Salazar, whose husband Ronny Salazar is serving a sentence at Men’s Central Jail, has paid several thousand dollars to GTL so that the couple’s two children could talk to their father, according to the complaint. Because the family lives in Sacramento, talking via phone is the only feasible option to communicate, the suit said.

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“My kids deserve to keep in touch with their father, whom they love, and my husband needs our support during this very difficult time,” Star Salazar said in a statement. “Why are we, a family simply trying to do the right thing, punished for keeping in touch with our loved one?”

A spokesman for L.A. County declined to comment, noting that county lawyers had not reviewed the lawsuit.

Lt. Jeff Hallock, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because the county had “not yet reviewed or analyzed” the complaint.

But Hallock noted that, according to research by the county, the average local call in Orange County jails cost 18 cents per minute and non-local, interstate and international calls averaged 23 cents a minute.

A spokesman for Riverside County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department could not immediately confirm whether it had been served with the complaint, according to a spokeswoman.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno

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