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AT&T charged too much for prison calls

FRIDAY, JAN. 18, 2008

OLYMPIA – Friends and relatives of inmates at two Eastern Washington prisons have been overcharged tens of thousands of dollars for collect phone calls, state regulators said Thursday.

In a settlement finalized Thursday, Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission has ordered AT&T Communications of the Pacific Northwest to refund up to $67,295 and fined the company more than $302,000.

“These high phone rates were simply ripping off friends and family members, and those are the people who have never committed a crime,” said Marilyn Meehan, a spokeswoman for the commission.

A state investigation found nearly 30,000 instances of overbilling during a four-month period in late 2005. The state prisons at Airway Heights and Walla Walla were the only ones affected, Meehan said.

Among those overbilled: Richard Laxton, a Seattle machine-shop programmer, who noticed that the cost of a 20-minute collect call from an incarcerated relative jumped from $15 to $22.

“I thought it was totally outrageous,” Laxton said Thursday. He complained to state regulators.

Under AT&T’s deal with the state prison system at the time, the company was allowed to charge $3.95 to connect the call, plus 59 cents a minute.

But the company’s billing agent, Zero Plus Dialing, was charging $3.95, plus 89 cents a minute, plus a 47-cent “prison surcharge,” the commission found.

“We regret the billing error and we’re prepared to make a prompt refund to affected consumers,” said Ted Wagnon, a spokesman for the company. He said the company plans to run advertisements and post notices in the two prisons.

It also plans to set up a toll-free number (1-800-826-9923) through which people can see if they are due a refund. (AT&T has a list of all the phone numbers to which the collect calls were placed.) If so, they’ll be sent a claim form, which must be filed by Aug. 31, 2008. The hotline was not yet activated on Thursday.

Attempts to contact Zero Plus Dialing for comment were unsuccessful.

Many of the refunds will be small amounts, Meehan said, but one person is due $2,110 for overcharges on more than 400 calls. Some 22 others are due refunds of about $500 each.

AT&T no longer has the contract for state-prison phone calls. After years of complaints from inmates’ families about the high rates, the Department of Corrections called for bids on a new contract.

“Supposedly they encourage family support. But you know, it’s pretty hard to do at $22 for a 20-minute call,” said Laxton.

Phone service in Washington state prisons is now provided by a company called FSH Communications. A 20-minute in-state collect call now costs $3.50.

Laxton said he’s already received his refund of more than $150. He said he was pleased with the state settlement with AT&T.

“I think it sent a strong message to them,” he said.

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