Judge dismisses York County Prison phone lawsuits, but appeals continue

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

A federal judge dismissed a pair of lawsuits involving York County Prison's inmate phone system contract, but the cases continue to be appealed.

At issue are allegations of contract interference between two competing businesses — Global Tel Link and Smart Communications — that speak to what has long been a contentious issue: the high price inmates are forced to pay to communicate with the outside world.

Smart Communications alleged that York County Prison and other county officials conspired with GTL, ultimately leading to the award of the contract to GTL. That five-year contract charges inmates 16 cents per minute for in-state and out-of-state calls.

That means a 15-minute phone call would cost inmates $2.40. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, that's below the national average of about $3.

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York County remained tight-lipped about both cases, citing the fact that appeals were still ongoing.

"This is still a pending legal matter," Chief Clerk Greg Monskie said. "It’s a complicated case and there are several appeals involved, so it would not be prudent to comment at this time."

GTL did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Smart Communications.

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township Monday, August, 24, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

The lawsuits: The first lawsuit, filed in 2020 against York County, York County Prison and then-warden Clair Doll alleges patent infringement. Smart Communications claims the prison is illegally using its "Mailguard" and "Mailguard Tracker," which allow prisons to process and examine mail delivered to jail settings.

Smart Communications, in that lawsuit, said that it initiated negotiations with Doll after becoming aware that the prison's contract with GTL was on the verge of expiring.

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Smart Communications claimed its contract would provide an increased commission to York County Prison, a lower rate for prisoners and additional services to the county at no extra cost.

The second lawsuit, filed in 2021, alleges that GTL and the county conspired to interfere with Smart Communications' bid to provide an inmate communications contract.

Dismissed: Both lawsuits were dismissed by Judge Jennifer Wilson in the Middle District Court of Pennsylvania.

In her opinion on the 2020 lawsuit regarding patent infringement, Wilson found that the arguments of Smart Communications were attempting to claim that it had patented an abstract idea, rather than a specific technology.

"By Smart Communications’ own admission, there have been manual systems in place to combat this 'longstanding issue' for many years," Wilson wrote. "Smart Communications has not explained any claim limitations that involve aprocess not previously being conducted manually."

In her response to the lawsuit regarding claims of interference, Wilson wrote that Smart Communications was attempting to use the previous lawsuit as a business negotiation.

"Without suggesting that the patent lawsuit was not filed in good faith, it is apparent that plaintiffs attempted to leverage their patent lawsuit into a business negotiation," Wilson wrote.

In the lawsuit regarding Smart Communications' claims of interference in its contract negotiations, Wilson found that Smart Communications failed to prove a violation of anti-trust law.

'Circular logic': Wilson also dismissed counts regarding interference with the contract and unfair business competition. She found that the arguments made by Smart Communications were effectively circular, meaning that the argument for interference relied on the argument for unfair business competition.

"The cross-referencing of these counts presents a quandary for the court, presenting a potentially endless loop of circular logic reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s famous monologue analyzing how to determine the poisoned goblet in the 1987 film, 'Princess Bride,'" Wilson wrote. "Given the significant overlap of the factual bases for these claims, the court finds that under these circumstances, the unfair competition claim is duplicative of the tortious interference claim. One cannot go forward without the other."

Wilson found that GTL's actions were justified due to its pre-existing relationship with York County Prison, noting that the company first received a contract with the county in 2009.

Other legal issues: The lawsuits are not the only ones filed against the county and county prison in recent years. Inmates at the prison filed suit against the county, prison and controversial contractor, Corrections Special Applications Unit (C-SAU), regarding alleged civil rights violations at the prison.

Wilson, in her rulings, noted Smart Communications' history of similar litigation.

And the company itself faces criticism for its business practices. In contract information obtained by The Appeal, five sheriffs' departments were given free rooms on cruises that sailed from Florida as part of their contracts.

"As part of the bidding process, Smart Communications’ proposals promised 'complimentary rooms' for sheriff’s department staff on an 'Annual Technology Training Summit Cruise,'" the prison news organization reported. "The documents say the cruise provides sheriff’s office staff with 'accredited workshops and training classes.'"

Smart Communications CEO Jonathan Logan told The Appeal these cruises never happened but acknowledged "technology summits" are held by the company.

"In 2021, a representative for Smart Communications emailed the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia to offer a 'complimentary training event' . . . held at our headquarters in Tampa," the article reads. "At the end of the message, the company noted that attendees will be 'Living the resort life.'"

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.