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Mysterious, one-minute calls popped up on Bicka Barlow’s phone bill a few years ago. After she did a little detective work, the San Francisco criminal defense attorney figured out why. The phone company was charging her for jailhouse collect calls that she didn’t accept — and in some cases, the phone company billed her when no one answered her law office’s phone. “It made me very irritated and upset,” Barlow said. While Barlow was eventually credited for the charges, she spent a year disputing the calls, which added $15 to $20 to her monthly bill. Criminal defense attorneys are the star plaintiffs in Condes v. Evercom, 2002054255, an Alameda County, Calif., case that seeks class action certification. Three of the four name plaintiffs, Elena Condes, Barlow and Brian Getz, are Bay Area lawyers. Their attorney, San Francisco solo John Allured, said the class could involve “thousands” of California criminal defense attorneys. Other professionals who deal with inmates, as well as prisoners’ families, are also potential class members, he said. The plaintiffs want an injunction to bar phone companies from billing customers for unaccepted jailhouse calls. The unfair competition suit, which could involve calls made from dozens of California correctional facilities, also seeks restitution and punitive damages. The plaintiffs’ legal team includes Oakland, Calif., solo Edward Casey and Farrow, Bramson, Baskin & Plutzik partner Alan Plutzik. On Wednesday, both sides will return to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw’s courtroom for a discovery hearing. A class certification hearing is set for Nov. 10. Several defendant companies who build and run inmate calling systems — including Evercom Systems Inc., Global Tel-Link Corp. and T-Netix Telecommunications Services Inc. — did not return repeated calls for comment. Others, such as SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., downplayed the lawsuit and distanced themselves from the suit’s allegations. In many cases, local phone carriers subcontract correctional facility accounts to specialists, such as Global and Evercom, phone company officials said. At the center of the dispute is how collect calling works at prisons and county jails. However, the technology used to run jailhouse phone systems is a closely guarded secret. As a result, many case documents in Condes have been put under seal. In addition to a protective order, some documents have been marked for “attorneys’ eyes only” to prevent defense attorneys, for example, from passing along a rival phone company’s trade secrets to a client. In fact, plaintiffs attorneys declined to describe how the collect calls work because doing so might violate protective orders in the case. A 2001 annual report by defendant T-Netix sheds a little light on the inmate phone service industry. T-Netix, which provides “inmate calling services” to 1,400 facilities, estimated that there were 10 major competitors in the field. Jailhouse calls are lucrative because most inmates may only make collect calls. Since the calls are limited in length, inmates make a high number of calls. T-Netix, which is no longer a public company, made $120 million in revenues in 2002, according to the last annual report available. And T-Netix isn’t even the largest company in the suit. Evercom serves 2,000 correctional facilities. Verizon would not say much about the case, noting that many case documents were under seal. “We believe that this particular case is without merit,” said Verizon spokesman Bill Kula. “After the discovery phase of this case, Verizon will be found without fault,” he said. An SBC spokesman, meanwhile, noted that it subcontracts its prison calling business to Global Tel-Link. “Global built the platform that’s in question,” said SBC spokesman John Britton. The customer’s bill comes in an SBC envelope, but the bills are based on data that comes from Global, he said. The technical issues make the case complex. “We are dealing with automated systems that are, by their nature, complicated. It’s not like you have Lily Tomlin pulling things in and out of a switchboard,” Allured said. While the technology involved is complex, the basic facts of the case are not, plaintiffs attorneys say. It was easy to spot the suspicious calls on Barlow’s bill because they were one or two minutes long, she said. In most cases, jailhouse collect calls go on much longer because it’s hard for inmates to reach their attorneys. Also, some of the calls were logged when Barlow was in court or on vacation, which means there was no one in the office to accept the call. The phone company’s practice probably affects poor people the most, Allured noted. If Barlow, a savvy attorney, battled the phone company for months, imagine the difficulty a poor inmate’s family would have, Barlow and Allured said. The phone company was probably aware they were billing people for calls they didn’t accept, Barlow said. “I can’t believe that they didn’t,” she said.

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