UPDATE, NOV. 20, 9:11 A.M.: Saying he cannot yet comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, an Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman provided the fees charged for jail phone calls.
"We researched jail phone calls and determined that the average local call costs 18 cents per minute," Lt. Jeff Hallock told the Weekly, "and non-local, interstate and international calls averaged 23 cents per minute."
ORIGINAL POST, NOV. 20, 6:05 A.M.: Orange County has been dragged into a lawsuit with three other Southern California counties over alleged "outrageous, illegal jail phone charges to vulnerable families and friends of inmates," according to attorneys for the plaintiffs.
Attorneys Barrett Litt, Ron Kaye, Michael Rapkin and Scott Rapkin announced they have filed the class action lawsuit against Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties on behalf of Star Salazar and Hilda Alarid, the wife and mother respectively of men behind bars.
"Tens of thousands of California jail inmates and their families, most of whom are not convicted but are facing charges, have been held hostage to grossly unfair and excessive phone charges, forcing them to pay these charges in order to maintain contact with their loved incarcerated ones," reads a statement from the plaintiff attorneys, who held a press conference near the LA County Men's Central Jail Thursday morning.
"A local phone call for an inmate's family contacting their loved one in jail costs approximately 10 times the amount paid by the public at large. These charges force family members desperately trying to maintain contact with their inmate husbands, parents and children to pay for totally unrelated jail expenses or give up their primary lifeline of communication. The charges require payment of unlawful sums from mostly poor and minority families trying to get by and stay in contact with loved ones. California counties, sworn to protect and provide for the most vulnerable in the state, make the lion's share of such phone profits on the backs of inmates' families. These families are often forced to choose between food / rent vs. keeping in touch with their loved ones."
"We have yet to review and evaluate the lawsuit in its entirety so we cannot comment," responded Lt. Jeff Hallock, the spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which runs the county jails.
The lawsuit challenges the counties' fees on several federal and state grounds, including violation of the Federal Communications Act, unconstitutional conditions and takings, enacting a tax in violation of the California Constitution and racially disparate impact on African-Americans and Latinos.
Among the evidence the plaintiff attorneys say they will present includes a fact sheet that claims: "Orange County collects a minimum $4.35 million, against 97 percent of the applicable intrastate phone charges collected. The cost to the jails of operating the phone system is a tiny fraction of these amounts."
In part from pressure by activists, the Federal Communications Commission in October ordered the reduction of excessive charges, saying, "In a nation as great as ours, there is no legitimate reason why anyone else should ever again be forced to make these levels of sacrifices, to stay connected, particularly those–who make up the majority in these cases–who can least afford it."
"It is now well established that communication between inmates and family members is a primary factor in reducing recidivism," say the plaintiff attorneys. "People who know they are loved and who have a family to return to are less likely to commit crimes in the future. This illegal practice of gouging the poorest families in order to pay for unrelated costs to county government must stop now."