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Arsberry v. State of Illinois, AT&T, Invision Telecom, MCI Telecommunications Corp., et al. is a civil rights lawsuit which challenged the State of Illinois’ practice of creating exclusive agreements with telephone companies for inmate telephone service.
On June 29, 1999, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois which challenged the State of Illinois’ practice of creating exclusive agreements with telephone companies for inmate telephone service. The lawsuit alleged that these agreements violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment, and the Illinois Constitution and Antitrust Act.
In agreements like this, the State and the telephone companies requires prisoners to make collect calls that charge the recipient of the call excessive rates and surcharges. These rates are typically among the highest for any type of telephone service available to the public. Those receiving inmate calls are locked into such an arrangement as well and are not entitled to use other services or to seek telephone company assistance for problems associated with these calls. These high rates also create issues for attorneys and prisoner assistance organizations in their efforts to adequately represent their incarcerated clients. The agreements also provide for huge monetary bonuses to be paid by the telephone companies to the State in exchange for the exclusive franchise.
After the district court dismissed the case in 2002, arguing that it should be heard by the Federal Communications Commission and/or the Illinois Commerce Commission, CCR filed an appeal with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Seventh Circuit considered the plaintiffs’ claims on the merits and held that the special tax on telephone calls did not violate the First Amendment rights of prisoners and their families. Judge Posner wrote, “Although the telephone can be used to convey communications that are protected by the First Amendment, that is not its primary use and it is extremely rare for inmates and their callers to use the telephone for this purpose. Not to allow them access to a telephone might be questionable on other grounds, but to suppose that it would infringe the First Amendment would be doctrinaire in the extreme.”