AT&T settlement a boon to Walla Walla inmate transition program

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WALLA WALLA — A $45 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against AT&T Inc. has dialed up a nearly $1 million award for a Walla Walla agency.

The Successful Transition and Re-entry Project is one of the beneficiaries of a 13-year-long court action that culminated earlier this year.

AT&T and other phone companies were sued by family and friends of Paul Wright, a Washington convict, for violating Washington state’s consumer protection laws by charging prison inmates high phone rates, said Rick Spoonemore, an attorney that brought the case against the communications giant.

“It was a long, long march,” he said.

The case, filed in 2000, was based on AT&T’s failure to disclose the rates it was charging for collect calls from inmates to those accepting the calls.

At a time when phone companies were promoting long distance calls for 5 to 10 cents a minute, AT&T charged almost $4 for the first minute and 90 cents for each additional minute but never told the call’s recipient what their bill would reflect, Spoonemore said.

At least three people racked up $20,000 in charges, according an analysis done during discovery in the case; others had bills of $10,000. In most cases, it was relatives and wives to inmates, Spoonemore said.

“These are the folks least able to afford those high, high rates. You can’t just say it’s a collect call and charge what you want.”

With no way to track down every victim of nondisclosure, money left after legal expenses and reimbursing members of the lawsuit went to grants for agencies that directly help incarcerated people and those recently released from prison, Spoonemore said. “The point is to get it to the same population.”

STAR Project, which will receive a total of $865,000 from the settlement, fits perfectly, he added. The Walla Walla nonprofit agency provides counseling, housing, educational and employment support to felons released from Washington State Penitentiary who must stay in Walla Walla County during parole.

The money will stretch over five years and stipulations for the award are concrete, said STAR Executive Director Glenna Awbrey.

“We have to use the money to expand services,” she said. “We can’t use them to maintain what we already have — we’ll continue to need local donations for that.”

The agency will create an education expense fund to get clients into school without waiting up to three months for college loan money to arrive. STAR also expects to rent a dozen more housing units for those needing a home after release, and pay for a part-time housing coordinator.

As well, a part-time case manager will let the agency serve more clients, Awbrey said.

“And we can fund transition outreach, someone to go into the penitentiary and make a plan with inmates who are getting ready for release,” she said.

STAR’s mission is important and the $865,000 grant breathes life back into the re-entry initiative, said Steve Sinclair, Washington State Penitentiary superintendent.

“This work used to cost us tax dollars,” he said. “STAR stepped up as independently funded and with a huge commitment to this work.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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