Lawsuits target ‘extortionate’ phone calls and commissary items in California prisons

The high price of prison phone calls and commissary purchases is at the center of a pair of proposed class action lawsuits in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, the first stolen in what could become a sprawling legal battle for who should bear the cost of financing certain prison services.

The first lawsuit, filed in San Diego state court last week, accuses the county of marking commissary items — food and hygiene products that inmates can buy in jail — so much so that it amounts to an illegal tax on detainees and their families. The second complaint, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles, echoes that allegation but adds allegations about the high cost of phone calls.

Lawyers are asking counties to reimburse inmates and their families for nearly two years of markup on food and phone calls, an uncertain price they say could easily run into the tens of millions.

“This is a truly unfair system in which the most vulnerable and least able to pay are paying – which in effect means their loved ones are paying,” said Barry Litt, one of the lawyers. charged with prosecution. “If society is going to put people in jail, then society should bear the cost of allowing them to live half decently while they are there.”

The legal team handling the San Diego and Los Angeles cases is filing similar claims against Kern, Sacramento, Alameda, Fresno, Orange, San Joaquin and San Bernardino counties, Litt said.

Lawsuit comes two years after Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimous passed a motion to end the increases on goods from the Commissary and making free phone calls to the approximately 14,000 people in local jails.

So far, this has not materialized.

But in an interview with The Times last month, Sheriff Robert Luna said the county is trying to address that issue and lower prices for inmates and their families.

“I don’t want them being charged for a cup of hot noodles or Cheetos or anything,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

Los Angeles County attorneys declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, while San Diego officials did not respond to a request for comment on the case there.

The high cost of commissary goods and calls behind bars have been criticized over the past decade across the country.

“Everyone makes a lot of money off the families of inmates,” then Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. said in 2014 when the county addressed the issue. “They are in jail. They pay their debt to society. This does not give us the right to defraud them.

The average prison charges around $3 for a 15-minute phone call — a figure that can still be prohibitive for low-income families struggling to stay in touch, according to Prison Policy Initiative. Decades of research by various Academics show that helping people maintain family ties while incarcerated can reduce recidivism.

Commissary mark-ups can be even more costly, sometimes reaching double the price similar items in outside stores. Yet many prisons and prisons do not provide certain basic necessities – such as tampons, deodorant or writing supplies – except through the prison canteen, and the meager and sometimes moldy meals that the detainees can be served behind bars are often not enough without some bought commissioners. Cheetos or ramen to top it off.

But police station orders and phone calls are usually outsourced to third-party contractors — and it’s those contracts that are at the heart of the problem in the current Los Angeles case.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Gregory Johnson and Jacqueline Murillo Castro, challenges Los Angeles County’s use of “commission contracts” in which the county is guaranteed a significant portion of the revenue from companies that handle the sales of office and telephone calls.

Johnson spent part of 2020 and 2021 at Men’s Central Jail, and Castro supported friends in jail by paying phone calls and putting money in their precinct accounts.

“The millions of dollars in commissions the companies agree to pay the county annually in exchange for these exclusive contracts are passed on entirely to the inmates, their families, friends and attorneys, in the form of exorbitant and outrageous prices, which are then used. by the county to fund its prisons,” the lawsuit states. “These ‘commissions’, although called as such, are in fact illegal taxes.”

Some jurisdictions have already taken steps to eliminate these “illegal taxes”. In 2021, Connecticut became the first to make all prison phone calls free. A little over a year later, California followed suit – but this change did not include county jails.

Still, some counties have solved the problem on their own. San Francisco led the way in 2019 when county leaders voted to end police station markups and make all jail cell phone calls free. Two years later San Diego made free phone calls in jail but left commissioner’s benefits untouched.

In counties that have not made these changes, Commissary calls and purchases still bring in millions of dollars each year. County audits to show that Los Angeles prisons typically bring in more than $35 million a year from telephones and police station sales.

As in other counties, this money goes to the sheriff’s department. Under state law, it must be deposited into an inmate welfare fund, which is supposed to be used primarily for the benefit and education of inmates. But the lawsuit alleges that is not necessarily what is happening.

“Rather than using the money primarily for vocational and educational programs, or other programs designed for the rehabilitation of inmates, much, if not most, of the money deposited into the Inmate Welfare Fund inmates is spent on general prison issues, including maintenance, equipment, office furniture, salaries and, in some cases, food,” the lawsuit states.

That means some of the county’s most vulnerable people — many of whom have serious mental illnesses and a disproportionate number of whom are people of color — are stuck with the costs of maintaining and equipping the jail, which the law says. lawsuit, “are rightly the responsibility of taxpayers and society at large.

The ongoing lawsuit echoes a series of cases that Litt filed several years ago. At the time, Litt said, an appeals court ruled that only contractors — not inmates or their families — could sue because technically contractors bore the cost of costly county commissions.

But last year, a California Supreme Court decision in a case involving municipal government and contractors changed the legal landscape. Afterwards, Litt said, he realized he could pursue another round of lawsuits without the same legal hurdles.

When filing the cases this time around, Litt said, his legal team decided which counties to target based largely on two factors: “One, was the amount [of money] significant enough to be worth suing and, second, did we have a plaintiff? »

Once Litt and his legal team finish filing the cases in the coming days, they will ask the courts to coordinate the cases into one larger case – which could be expanded in the future.

Reform advocates and formerly incarcerated Angelenos hailed the trial and the possibility of change. Kent G. Mendoza-Morales — who is not part of the case filed this week but spent time in county jails nearly a decade ago — recalls how difficult it was for his family to help pay for his food and phone calls while he was in prison.

“My mum used to go and sell stuff in the alleys to make money,” he said. “She did this to put money on my books, just so I could buy the minimum in the canteen.”

Now Mendoza-Morales has been free for nine years and works as an advocacy and community organizing officer at the Anti-Recidivist Coalition, where he sees how the costs of calls and consumer goods still affect inmates and their families. families.

“When you talk about improving our communities, you don’t do it by charging families who are already on the fringes so much for stewardship and appeals,” he said. “As one of the wealthiest counties in the world, how come we expect people to pay so much for something cheaper on the street?”

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