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"A New Day" 

Civil rights attorneys say systemic change is coming to the state prison system

click to enlarge AT&T, which was accused of overcharging inmates to make phone calls, will pay $45 million to settle a lawsuit. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • AT&T, which was accused of overcharging inmates to make phone calls, will pay $45 million to settle a lawsuit.

In the fallout of a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit, Washington state's prison system is about to receive an unprecedented infusion of cash with the potential to reform the Department of Corrections from criminal justice advocates on the outside.

Earlier this year, in AT&T vs. Judd, the phone company settled a civil lawsuit filed by family and friends of a former inmate who accused AT&T of charging excessive rates for collect calls from Washington prisons between 1996 and 2000. AT&T coughed up $45 million into a settlement fund for as many as 70,000 affected families. The residual funds from the settlement were awarded to social and legal service providers that work on behalf of prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Last week, the remainder of the settlement's residual funds, $6.5 million, was awarded to eight legal service organizations across the state.

"There's a new day coming for Washington's prisons," says David Carlson, director of legal advocacy at Disability Rights Washington. Carlson's Seattle-based organization received $1.75 million, which will be used to continue its advocacy and legal work for prisoners with disabilities and mental illness. He hopes that with the new funding, organizations like his will inform the public and policymakers about "sensible" ways of dealing with prisoners and ex-prisoners.

"It can't continually be a perpetuation of this use-of-force and punishment model," he says, "but rather, how do we get people the services they need so we stop this cycle of people being prolonged in bad conditions in prison, not be reintegrated well and ending up back in prison?"

That's exactly what Spokane's Center for Justice, the only organization in Eastern Washington to receive an award from the settlement, will do with its $350,000 award. Rick Eichstaedt, the center's executive director, says the new funding primarily will be used to provide legal services for prisoners in the Washington State Penitentiary who are subject to civil rights violations and recently incarcerated people who face barriers to re-entry, like housing, job discrimination or difficulties obtaining their driver's license.

"One of the most frustrating things, and we see it all the time, is folks who have served their time and want to come out and now do the right thing. We don't do a very good job helping those folks reintegrate into the community," Eichstaedt says.

Columbia Legal Services, a statewide nonprofit law firm for low-income people in civil rights cases, received the largest award, $3 million. John Midgley, CLS' advocacy director, says the money will be used to expand the litigation and policy work of CLS' Institutions Project, which represents prisoners and others confined in state institutional settings.

CLS often hears complaints from state prisoners who are denied adequate medical attention for their health conditions. With additional funding, Midgley says CLS will investigate and advocate for improved access to health care for state prisoners.

"The history is sometimes people [in prison] are not believed when they make complaints," he says. "The medical standard is that you have to take a medical complaint that's true. There are always cases of people who aren't taken care of right away."

DRW's Carlson says he'd like to see all the legal service providers that received funding from the settlement come up with a collective strategy for reforming the prison system.

"What we don't want is a large influx of money, people just spend it to spend it, and then it goes away and we didn't have anything in return," Carlson says. "What I want is to use that large of influx of money to be that critical mass of seed money that really pushes a reform movement that isn't just simply putting a band-aid on things." ♦

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