E-Alerts & Press Releases

Court Rejets PJC Challenge to State Telephone Charges for Prisoners' Families

December 7, 2005

Crystal A. Benson, et al. v. State of Maryland, et al., No. 7, Court of Appeals of Maryland, September 2005 Term
 
The PJC, on behalf of itself and six other nonprofit organizations advocating for prisoners and their families in Maryland, filed an amicus brief in the Maryland Court of Appeals in a case involving a challenge to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ monopoly telephone system that grossly overcharges inmates and their families and allows the agency to collect millions of dollars for its own coffers from these vulnerable groups.  Plaintiffs in this case argued that the telephone collection and remittance of the telephone commission to the State violates Article 14 (no aid, tax, charge, fee, or burthen shall be rated or levied without consent of the Legislature) and Article 8 (separation of powers).  PJC’s amicus brief addressed two issues:  first, it provided information about the vital importance of telephone communications – between prisoners and their families and other community supports – to maintaining family and community relationships, particularly under difficult circumstances where families are poor and prisoners are isolated in prisons in rural areas; and second, it argued that the plaintiffs were entitled to bring a class action under the Maryland Tort Claims Act.
 
On December 7, 2005, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.  The Court of Appeals held that the commission collected and paid to the State did not violate Articles 14 and/or 8.  In particular, the Court of Appeals held that (1) although Article 14 includes within its scope the telephone commission here, the Court found “clear evidence” that the Legislature consented to the imposition of a telephone commission; and (2) because the power to set fees and charges may be delegated to administrative agencies, the Court of Appeals found no violation of Article 8.  The Court of Appeals failed to address PJC’s argument on the critical importance of telephone communications.  Similarly, the Court of Appeals dodged PJC’s argument that the MTCA entitled plaintiffs to bring a class action by concluding that the MTCA was inapplicable to violations of Article 14 because such a claim is not compensable in monetary damages.  Despite the unfortunate outcome, PJC commends Deb Gardner (counsel on the amicus brief) and PJC volunteer John Kopolow for their valiant efforts in this case.



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