In an agreement approved last month, state regulators are requiring telecommunications giant AT&T to pay thousands of dollars in refunds to families of prison inmates who were overcharged for collect phone calls from two Eastern Washington state prisons.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission also fined AT&T $302,705 for charging higher telephone rates than allowed for thousands of collect calls from the two prisons.
The commission identified 29,971 violations in phone-rate charges during a four-month period in 2005 at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane and the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The prisoners' families and others were overcharged $67,295 for the collect calls.
Prisoners in Washington cannot make direct calls outside the institution, but instead make outgoing-collect calls from pay phones. During the time of the commission's investigation, from March to June 2005, AT&T had a contract with the state to provide telephone service from state prisons. AT&T was required to file a price list with the commission, including charges made for collect calls from pay phones at the two Washington prisons.
Richard Laxton, a Seattle resident, filed a complaint with the commission in August 2005, after he noticed a discrepancy in two collect-phone calls made from the Airway Heights. AT&T billed him $15.75 for a 20-minute call from the state institution but Zero Plus Dialing, a billing agent for AT&T, charged $22.22 for the same telephone call.
The commission discovered Zero Plus Dialing was charging a $3.95 connection fee plus 89-cents-a-minute and a 47-cent prison surcharge for the collect call made from a pay phone at the state prison. The phone company was allowed to charge $3.95 for the connection fee and 59 cents a minute for the phone call, according to AT&T's price list.
Beginning Feb. 1, persons seeking refunds may contact AT&T toll-free at 800-826-9923 or submit a reimbursement form to the company. They also can check with AT&T to see if their names are among the 29,971 on the overcharged phone call list. Customers will have seven months to submit their claim to AT&T, from Feb. 1 to Aug. 31.
If the total amount of the refunds issued by the company is less than $67,295, AT&T will remit the difference to the Offender Welfare Betterment Account, administered by the Washington State Department of Corrections.
Members of the public, including families of prisoners, are not permitted to place telephone calls to inmates at state prisons. There are about 1.6 million collect phone calls made from the state's prisons each year.