Students Help Challenge the Exorbitant Cost of Calling from Jail

Students Help Challenge the Exorbitant Cost of Calling from Jail

When does a simple 10 minute phone call from one spot in Massachusetts to another cost nearly $5?

When you are in the county lock-up in Bristol County in the southeast corner of the state.

These exorbitant fees can mount quickly and are a huge burden for families of people awaiting trial or serving sentences. They are now also the focus of a class action lawsuit that has given a pair of Harvard Law School students the opportunity to help frame both the legal and media strategies for prosecuting a high profile case to upend a lucrative prison telephone company contract that exploits inmates while enriching one county sheriff’s coffers.

Kelly Ganon,’19, Dylan Herts ’19 and Roger Bertling, Harvard Lecturer on Law.

The case was filed in May against Bristol County (Massachusetts) Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and Securus Technologies, Inc., a Texas-based company that provides phone services for inmates across the country. Brought by four named plaintiffs – two of them inmates—the case alleges that the contract between the sherrif’s office and Securus represents an illegal kickback scheme that nearly doubles the cost of calls made from the county jail.

Organizations filing the litigation on behalf of the plaintiffs were the Consumer Protection Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, the National Consumer Law Center, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and Bailey & Glasser. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to halt the payment scheme and monetary relief to return the money extracted from class members.

Which legal arguments to use

“We are representing a group of people who are caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Kelly Ganon ’19, who was a paralegal in the Economic Crimes Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston before coming to law school. Ganon also worked in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office the summer after her first year in law school. “It was fascinating to work with seasoned attorneys to strategize about how to put the best foot forward on a case,” Ganon said.

Ganon and fellow student Dylan Herts ’19 researched a range of legal arguments that they or the attorneys posited could be used. “I’d never been involved in a civil case from the beginning, looking critically at all the various ways the case can be taken, the legal arguments that can be made, and making decisions about what will stand up best,” said Herts.

Herts, who prior to coming to HLS worked as an economic litigation consultant providing expert witnesses to firms defending clients in securities and antitrust litigation, observed: “This was my first experience coming from the plaintiff side. It was amazing to have the whole universe available to consider in terms of how to frame the litigation. What can we bring up? What should we bring up?”

The ability to take Securus to court only arose when the company moved over the past few years to be viewed as an internet service provider rather than a phone utility. “As a traditional phone utility, it could not be sued on these claims, but as an internet company providing phone calls over the internet it could be,” says Harvard Law School Lecturer on Law Roger Bertling, who leads the Consumer Protection Clinic at LSC and is the lead attorney from Harvard on the case.

Fees and kickbacks

Massachusetts law prohibits sheriffs from charging prisoners fees to subsidize the cost of their incarceration unless such fees are authorized by the legislature. Rather than attempt to assess unauthorized fees directly, the BCSO arranges for Securus, a private vendor, to extract revenues from individuals like family members, friends and attorneys, who accept collect phone calls from prisoners which are unrelated to the cost of providing the phone service. Those revenues, called “commissions,” are then redirected to the sheriff’s office pursuant to the contract between the County and the company, thus circumventing the legal prohibition, Bertling explains.

Between August 2011 and June 2013, Securus paid the Bristol County Sheriff’s office $1.7 million in exchange for an exclusive contract to provide inmate phone services. It paid the sheriff’s office $200,00 per year plus a lump sum of $820,000 to cover 2016 to 2020. To offset these costs, Securus charged inmates, their families and friends and attorneys exorbitant fees for phone calls. Inmates had no choice but to use Securus. Bertling adds: “We are not challenging a filed rate already agreed to by the Commonwealth, but rather commissions that have not been authorized by the legislature.”

Fees for calls in Bristol include $3.16 for the first minute and 16 cents for each additional minute. If calls are disconnected – a common complaint from inmates – reconnecting results in a recurrence of the $3.16 charge for the first minute. A simple 10 minute phone call can cost $4.76.

Statewide and nationwide impact

If the case is ultimately successful, it could have an impact on thousands of inmates in Massachusetts. It could also impact numerous inmates in other states whose correction facilities have entered into similar telephone servicer provider agreements. Securus provides phone and video calling services for jails in 10 of the 14 counties in Massachusetts, as well as for the state’s prisons. Contract terms vary widely among jurisdictions. In the Massachusetts state prisons, for example, phone calls are 10 cents per minute with no special fee for the first minute.

Impact litigation and media

“When you are doing impact litigation like this case, the lawyers are doing a lot that is not litigation,” notes Herts, who says he is hoping to do consumer protection antitrust work with the government in the future. “Media coverage was an extremely important facet of this case. When the litigation was filed, I saw an article about it online in the Boston Globe. Then a few days later the Globe also did an editorial,” he said.

The editorial sided with the arguments being made in the lawsuit and against the practices of Securus and the Bristol Country Sheriff’s department. It also called for legislative reforms that would prevent similar price-gouging practices.

“An immense amount of discussion among the groups working on this suit were focused on how are we going to tell this story,” Ganon says. “We focused a lot of time on the narrative that sets the stage for the legal arguments in the filing.”

Consumer protection offers great experience

As students in the Consumer Protection clinic course, Ganon and Herts began their semesters helping individual consumers facing credit card debt cases in state district court, which was equally rewarding.

“At the beginning of the semester, Professor Bertling asked each student what they wanted to do after graduation and I told him I wanted to be a trial attorney,” Ganon says. She was given the opportunity to represent clients in state district court and work on a case requesting a stay for a client who was battling nine lawsuits related to student loan debt.

Herts, who also had the opportunity to represent clients in state district court as well as working on the prison phone call case, says he hopes to stay involved with the case next semester by either taking an advanced level course with the Consumer Protection Clinic, or through another route. “The experience is teaching me a lot – and the issue is really important.”

— Julie Rafferty

Photo credit: Martha Stewart

 

Project on Predatory Student Lending Hiring a Racial Justice Fellow

The Project on Predatory Student Lending is excited to announce a one-year fellowship! The racial justice fellow will develop cutting-edge litigation to combat the discriminatory efforts of current higher education policies, and lead outreach efforts by engaging with existing clients and community partners and forging new partnerships with communities impacted by the predatory for-profit industry.

For more information and to apply to the position, click here.

For more information on for-profit colleges and racial justice, click here.

LSC, OUTVETS, & Veterans Legal Services Co-Host LGBTQ Veterans Summit

A two-day summit at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA on the unique issues faced by LGBTQ veterans brought together dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans matters from the US and Canada. The group of legal, political, and healthcare experts examined both past and present discriminatory policies — including Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — and the proposed U.S. transgender service ban, currently on hold in the courts.

Titled “Do Ask, Do Tell, Do Justice: Pursuing Justice for LGBTQ Military Veterans,” the two-day ideas-in-action summit was co-hosted by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, OUTVETS, and Veterans Legal Services. Also spearheading the event was John R. Campbell, Former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for the Office of Warrior Care and 2017 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow.

Held April 19-20, it brought together dozens of experts on LGBTQ military and veterans’ matters. Participants who shared their stories, experiences, and best practices included representatives from OutServe-SLDN, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, American Veterans for Equal Rights, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, Dartmouth Hitchcock, Johns Hopkins, and the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, as well as co-hosts OUTVETS, the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, and Veterans Legal Services.

Canadian Attorneys John McKiggan and R. Douglas Elliott offered their perspectives as co-counsel on the groundbreaking matter of Satalic, et al v. Her Majesty the Queen, a successful national class action brought on behalf of current and former LGBTQ employees of the Canadian Armed Forces, Department of National Defence, and the Government of Canada. The action resulted in a record-breaking $145 million settlement and public apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The summit engaged participants in a multi-disciplinary examination of legal and non-legal remedies to enforce the rights of LGBTQ veterans and to honor and fully recognize their military service and unique sacrifices. The Honorable Halee Weinstein, and Paula M. Neira, JD, MSN, RN, CEN, gave powerful keynote luncheon addresses concerning discriminatory military policies against LGBTQ servicemembers, and the transgender service ban, respectively.

Weinstein, one of the few openly gay judges in the Maryland court system, was named Associate Judge, District Court of Maryland, District 1, Baltimore City, in 2002 and has been Judge-In- Charge of Eastside District Court since 2014. She served as a military intelligence officer in the Army from 1984 to 1986 until she was discharged because of her sexual orientation. Weinstein also created and is the current presiding Judge of the Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Court.  Neira was a surface warfare officer whose service included a tour of duty in mine warfare combat during Operation Desert Storm. After the Navy, she found a path toward nursing and law. She is the first transgender Navy veteran to have her DD-214 updated by order of the Navy to reflect her correct name. Additionally, she is the co-sponsor of the USNS HARVEY MILK. She is currently the Clinical Program Director at the John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health.

The summit also dovetailed with Harvard Law School’s (HLS) bicentennial celebration and engaged alumni in the second day’s “hackathon” discussions of potential ways to address past and current discrimination against LGBTQ service members and veterans.

“It is genuinely exciting to witness so many individuals committed to advancing the rights of LGBT veterans. Symposia like the HLS Hackathon give me hope that there are still possibilities for positive change within our society,” said participant Hanna Tripp, who serves as a Military and Veteran Fellow in the Office of Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, III.

Results from the summit’s working groups are currently being compiled into a more formal report which will be released in the next few weeks, but overall participants left the event feeling energized and hopeful, echoing Ms. Tripp’s comments.

“OUTVETS is honored to have been part of this amazing summit,” said Bryan Bishop, Commander of OUTVETS, a Boston-based LGBTQ Veterans Organization and the first ever LGBTQ organization to march in the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  “It never ceases to amaze me how, when we put our heads and hearts together, we can develop ideas that help the most vulnerable of our Veterans.  It is so important to remember that it is the one Veteran standing in front of us that is the most important.  This summit represents the beginning of an energized movement that works together to break down walls so no Veteran is left behind.”

Contact:
Anna Richardson, Veterans Legal Services
Anna@veteranslegalservices.org
Julie Rafferty, Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School
jrafferty@law.harvard.edu

A Warrior for Veterans

Legal Services Center Staff Attorney Evan Seamone was first attracted to the military growing up in Los Angeles, joining the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) in high school when he discovered that students from all walks of life, including many undocumented immigrants, were part of the program.

“Students teaching students, melting pot happening – sign me up,” Seamone remembers thinking at the time.

And when the Junior ROTC brought in a Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps officer as part of a Vietnam War court martial simulation, Seamone found his calling.

Seamone brings 15 yeaEvan Seamoners of experience as a military lawyer to his role in the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) of Harvard Law School. He has served in the Army in Iraq, in Germany, and on U.S. military bases, working on cases ranging from sexual assault to the death penalty. Seamone continues to serve his country as a member of the Reserve JAG Corps, and periodically is called away to represent military personnel.

He also brings academic expertise to his role at LSC, having previously served as Professor and Director of the Legal Writing Program at Mississippi College School of Law, as well as supervising students in that school’s Veterans Law Clinic.

Since joining Harvard in May 2017, Seamone has helped dozens of former U.S. military members fight discrimination, obtain benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA), and gain a sense of support in the veteran community.  His work is supported through a generous grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. The grant funds legal assistance to veterans seeking services such as VA healthcare, housing and education assistance, discharge status upgrades, and general legal representation.

Reaching Out

At LSC, Seamone has dedicated his time to advocating for the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable veterans, including LGBTQ veterans, incarcerated veterans, and victims of military sexual trauma (MST).

He has found that those most in need of help are often those least able to access basic health care and financial services from the VA.

Consequently, he has spearheaded several targeted outreach efforts, engaging with local Veterans’ Centers, attending community events in Boston, meeting with veterans who are incarcerated in county jails, and visiting neighborhoods where vets have struggled to access resources and obtain benefits.

Seamone recounts attending community events at local supermarkets, homeless shelters, and even local attractions like the Franklin Park Zoo in an attempt to identify veterans in need of services. “I walk the line and ask, ‘Are you a veteran, have you served in the military?’” he explains.

He has also dedicated much of his time to communicating with incarcerated veterans.  At the Middlesex House of Corrections, about 30 veterans are housed together in a specialized unit called HUMV, the first correctional unit in Massachusetts specifically designed for individuals who have served in the military.  Seamone meets with them regularly, and is currently working on developing transition plans for these veterans so that they are better able to take advantage of resources and benefits upon release.

Seamone notes these incarcerated individuals face especially harmful stigma.  Many feel embarrassed or ashamed of their situation and are reluctant to even identify as veterans.  As Seamone explains, “they have the identity of someone who fights to defend values of the country, not someone who violates them.”

Doing Away with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

One of his major efforts is now focused on identifying veterans who have suffered the repercussions of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy and its precursors. These discriminatory policies prevented members of the LGBTQ community from serving in the military or, often, had the effect of driving out of the military those who served while hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Seamone emphasizes that negative byproducts of discriminatory policies like DADT have included surveillance and interrogations, civilians and service members ‘informing’ command about homosexual activity, non-sexual extortion, and sexual assault.

Moreover, LGBTQ veterans who were forced to conceal their sexual identities due to DADT face elevated risk of panic attacks, PTSD, depression, suicide and substance abuse.

More than 114,000 gay and lesbian soldiers had been forced out of the military, many with less than honorable discharges, from the 1940s to the time that DADT was rescinded by President Obama in 2011. Even if an individual received an honorable discharge, their discharge papers may mention “homosexuality” as a reason for leaving the military, which can create stigma when applying for a job or accessing medical or other veterans’ benefits.

Moreover, there persists a sense of alienation for many LGBTQ service members: many feel unwelcome in the military community because of their sexual orientation, and may not receive a warm reception within the LGBTQ community because of their military affiliation.

This ‘double closet’ creates a situation in which veterans “face additional risks beyond those normally faced by non-LGBTQ veterans, such as PTSD from combat,” says Seamone.

To address these problems, Seamone is working to reach out to this community and help them obtain the upgrades to which they are entitled.

Seamone has engaged with such local organizations as OUTVETS and Veterans Legal Services, keeping an open line of communication with LGBTQ and veterans’ community leaders.

In February, Seamone and colleagues from LSC’s Veterans Legal Clinic convened a community event for nearly 50 individuals who serve the veterans’ community in Massachusetts to identify ways to conduct more effective outreach to LGBTQ veterans.

In addition to that, a “Hack-a-Thon” was organized as part of Harvard Law School’s alumni weekend in April to engage both experts and Harvard Law School alums to brainstorm ideas for reversing the adverse effects of years of discrimination in the military against members of the LGBTQ community.  These negative effects range from vets being denied years of veterans’ benefits due to less than honorable discharges to being at increased risk of suicide and a host of medical problems because of how they were treated while in service, when discharged, and once leaving the military.

Having set a goal to increase the Veterans Legal Clinic’s outreach efforts by 20 percent, Seamone has far exceeded that benchmark, achieving a 100 percent increase.  Seamone estimates that in all, he is providing individualized service in one way or another to over 60 veterans at any given time.

In the Trenches: Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

While Seamone’s work is focused around LGBTQ vets and other veterans groups who need legal help, it is not his only interest. He recently published a paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Law & Education entitled “In the Trenches of Legal Academia: Recognizing and Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Law Students Who Have Served in the Nation’s Armed Forces.”

The publication surveys existing research and offers potential prescriptions for easing problems faced by vets suffering from traumatic brain injury or PTSD who are navigating the high-pressure environment of law school.

A Holistic Approach to Helping Veterans

To speak to Seamone is to realize how fulfilled he is by his work, and to understand the energy and passion he puts into every case.

Seamone recognizes that it is not always just legal aid, but other forms of assistance that may drastically improve a client’s life. He adopts a holistic approach, going into each case asking, “What is it that this client needs and how can we meet those needs?”

As he puts it, although he is an attorney and not a social worker or mental health provider, “that doesn’t mean I can’t benefit from the knowledge of other professionals.”

Recognizing that many clients with sensitive issues and traumatic experiences are intimidated by a legal process that can be re-traumatizing, Seamone has developed relationships with mental health providers to provide coordinated care.  This has included offering clients the option of speaking to a counselor to decide how much information they feel comfortable sharing and providing on-site counseling assistance after discussions of particularly traumatic events.

“It’s About the Validation”

Seamone lights up as he speaks about the payoff of his work, explaining that the “breakthroughs” clients have when their cases are resolved are almost always far more meaningful — for him and for the veteran — than any amount of benefits or back pay.

He has come to understand that “it’s not about the money, it’s about the validation…it can give them something they haven’t had for years.”

For veterans to have their stories heard, and to be told that the system has not forgotten them, is a transformative and powerful experience.

Seamone succinctly sums up his work with a simple statement about his clients, yet one that many of them do not hear enough: “They are worth it.”

–Taylor Mahlandt