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Corrections Can Charge Prisoners to 'Reach Out and Touch Someone'

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By Dyanna Quizon, Esq. on February 07, 2012 9:05 AM

Maintaining a human connection with people is a natural need that doesn't end when you're in prison. However, the need to "reach out and touch someone" isn't a constitutionally-protected right that you get for free.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held on Thursday that the First Amendment does not prohibit the Department of Corrections from charging prisoners for telephone communications with the outside world.

The lawsuit was filed by Arkansas prison inmate Winston Holloway, who complained that his right of free speech was being violated because high prison phone charges prevented him from calling his family more often. Telephone company Global Tel*Link (GTL) exclusively provides the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) inmates with telephone service in exchange for giving 45 percent of its revenue to ADC.

The arrangement has been criticized by many given the opportunity for abuse. The lower court noted that giving private companies exclusive telephone service rights to inmates has been criticized by the Federal Communications Commission and other critics in numerous lawsuits. However, no court has held that the contracts were unlawful, and numerous states have continued similar contractual arrangements with private companies.

In the same vein, the Eighth Circuit held that the contract between ADC and GTL was lawful, finding that ADC has no First Amendment obligation to provide any telephone service - much less "that service at a particular cost to users."

"The Constitution does not prohibit charging prisoners for essential prison services, at least in the absence of a showing that the result is a severe deprivation of a fundamental right," Judge James Loken wrote.

The Eighth Circuit also conducted the four-factor Turner test under the theory that the contract commission was a speech restriction and found the second Turner factor - the availability of alternative means - to be particularly relevant. Since inmates can communicate through personal visits or mail, the telephone charges did not significantly infringe on his right to communicate.

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