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Jun 25, 2008

Alan G. Stone, Esq of Skelton, Taintor & Abbott assists families and other members of the public in challenging the lawfulness and reasonableness of rates and charges of the Maine Department of Corrections for telephone service.

Category: Firm News

AUGUSTA – In deliberations today, the Maine Public Utilities Commission concluded that it has jurisdiction over the Maine Department of Corrections prisoner telephone system. Family members and supporters of inmates petitioned the Commission for an investigation in 2007, arguing that the rates charged for calls, connection charges, and prepaid account maintenance were unjust, unreasonably and unfairly discriminatory under Maine law. The MCLU has participated in the deliberations as an interested party, in connection with its advocacy mission involving criminal justice.

“Parents, spouses, members of faith communities, and attorneys have all sought to have Maine’s prisoner phone system regulated because they understand the important role that contact with inmates has on rehabilitation,” said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “The Department of Corrections has created an unreasonable barrier to the contact, and hopefully today’s decision brings us one step closer to fair telephone rates.”

Maine statute requires that telephone rates, tolls and charges charged by Maine utilities “shall be just and reasonable.” While the generally-available rate for local calls in Maine is $.03/minute, the Maine Department of Corrections charges family members $.30, as well as fees ranging from $.95 to $8 to access the telephone system. The Department has acknowledged that the telephone rates include a 50% surcharge (or “commission”), which produces revenues to the Department of Corrections beyond and in excess of the cost of providing the telecommunications service. The matter came to the MPUC’s attention through the filing of a 10-person complaint by Barbara Pierce and other family members of inmates in Maine’s state prison. One basis for the complaint is that the surcharge imposed by the DOC is unrelated to the provision of telephone service, and results in unfair, unjust and unreasonable telephone rates charged to the public.

“The Maine PUC has specialized experience and expertise that they will apply in evaluating the fairness, reasonableness and legality of the Department of Corrections phone rates. That the PUC concluded that it has the jurisdiction to review these rates and that it will open an investigation to do so, is a very positive step” said Alan Stone, an attorney with Skelton, Taintor & Abbott who has helped advise the complainants. “While the DOC has special security needs relating to the provision of telephone service to the public that may justify a rate in excess of the general commercial rate, the rates and surcharges are designed to recover general operating expenses of the Department that are totally unrelated to telecommunications service and beyond what is normally considered reasonable.”

In April, the MPUC staff issued a recommended decision that analyzed the statutory basis for jurisdiction, as well as applicable case law. The staff concluded that, under Maine law, the Maine Department of Corrections satisfied the relevant tests for determining whether an entity is a “public utility” and, therefore, subject to the MPUC’s jurisdiction. Though the Department of Corrections objected, the MPUC commissioners today accepted the staff’s conclusions.

“I brought this matter to the MPUC because there were too many Maine families spending thousands of dollars just to keep in touch with their loved ones,” said Barbara Pierce, the lead complainant in the 10-person complaint that precipitated today’s decision. “Families, friends, and attorneys have had no choice but to pay phone rates 1000% higher than normal consumer rates, while the Department of Corrections made a profit on the deal. That is simply not right.”

The MPUC is expected to issue an order confirming its jurisdiction shortly, and to then turn its attention to the substance of the complaint—the fairness and reasonableness of the rates and charges set by the Department of Corrections for telecommunications service.

Update (01/20/09): Alan G. Stone argues before the Maine Supreme Court against the challenge by the Department of Corrections to the order of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Please go to this link for coverage of the Maine Supreme Court argument: Here’s the link to the page that includes the "listen" link: []