Lawsuit alleges Bristol County Sheriff's Office is overcharging inmates on phone calls

By Douglas McCulloch | May 23, 2018

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is facing a lawsuit alleging the high cost of the sheriff's office's inmate phone system constitutes an “illegal kickback scheme.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in Suffolk Superior Court in early May, names Hodgson and private phone operator Securus Technologies, Inc. as defendants. Since 2011, the company has been the exclusive operator of the jail’s phone system.

The plaintiffs, mental health clinician Kellie Pearson, two inmates, and the Law Offices of Mark Booker, allege the private phone system has nearly doubled the cost of telephone calls made to inmates in Bristol County jails.

In court documents they state the practice “cause[s] harm to prisoners, their children, other loved ones, mak[es] prisoner reentry to the community more difficult, and mak[es] legal representation more costly.”

According to the company’s online rate calculator, the cost to make a call is $3.16 plus an additional 16 cents per minute.

In court documents, Pearson detailed her experience paying for calls to her fiance, Michael T. Ray, who committed suicide while incarcerated at the Dartmouth jail. Pearson said the high cost of the calls placed a significant financial strain on her and Ray.

Roger Burrell, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he was forced to use the service to make calls to his mother, sister, and to his attorney because he is elderly and had no other options to communicate with his family. A medical issue prevented him from writing letters and in-person visits were infeasible because members of his family are disabled.

The lawsuit alleges that in exchange for an exclusive contract with the sheriff’s office, Securus agreed to pay the department various fees and site commissions which changed throughout the course of the contract, which the plaintiffs referred to as “illegal kickbacks.”

Originally in 2011, the contract terms included monthly payments of 48 percent of gross revenue to the sheriff’s office. From 2011 to 2013, Securus made $1.1 million in monthly payments to the sheriff's office.

The contract terms were changed following changes in federal regulations, and Securus made a lump sum payment of $820,000 to cover 2016-2020. It is alleged that Securus passed the costs of these payments on to inmates and their families and legal representation by inflating the cost of phone calls to compensate.

Jonathan Darling, spokesperson for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, called the notion that the payments are kickbacks “misleading,” noting that the department does not make a profit off of the service

“The money goes back into operating our programs -- substance abuse, anger management -- the term ‘kickback’ is misleading,” Darling said.

He also said the fee structure is commonplace in sheriff’s offices throughout the state, and the contracts were approved by the state.

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