by Wendy Sawyer, May 18, 2017

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores has styled himself a hometown hero in Michigan, but his company’s current bid to acquire prison telecom company Securus Technologies suggests he cares far more about profits than he does people.

“It’s really Tom’s idea that [the Pistons] are a great platform, they’re a community asset and, with that, requires us to be socially responsible…. It’s about inspiring our youth, unifying our community, and improving the lives of others.” – Arn Tellem, vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment (owned by Platinum Equity)

If Gores is trying to improve lives, Securus is the wrong investment. As the second-largest prison and jail telecom company in the country, it is arguably one of the most exploitative companies profiting from mass incarceration. It’s certainly among the worst of the bunch for the people forced to use their ever-expanding array of criminal-justice-related “services.” (See sidebar)

Securus stands out from other prison and jail telecom companies for the extremes it will go to generate revenue from the families and friends of incarcerated people:

Securus exploits the need for incarcerated people and families to maintain contact, charging extremely high rates and fees for phone calls. Some of the money goes back to the prison or jail in the form of commissions, so the incentive for Securus and the facilities is to charge as much as possible. In Michigan, that means a 15-minute in-state call can cost families over $22. In response to objections, rival company GTL has lowered rates in Michigan state prisons to about 20 cents per minute, but Securus continues to charge over $1 per minute.

And who are the people paying Securus those high rates and fees? Family and friends, many of whom are low-income and people of color – and the same community members whom Mr. Gores supports through his charitable endeavors. A Detroit sports fan or concert-goer might question the sincerity of Mr. Gores’ philanthropic efforts when the outrageous fees they pay Securus end up lining his pockets.

So why is Gores’ private equity firm, Platinum Equity LLC, interested in Securus, when its exploitative practices are well-documented and bound to invite criticism? Platinum is either ignorant of the company’s exploitative business model (unlikely) or it sees an opportunity too good to pass up.

Over the past 10 years, Securus has expanded its business to avoid pesky regulations that might restrict exploitative practices, and the current political climate may reward this strategy. Between 2007 and 2015 the company shifted from 100% regulated businesses to 65% deregulated businesses within the expansive world of “user-funded” criminal justice services, like telemedicine, commissary, probation and parole supervision, and GPS monitoring.

Securus’ remaining regulated business, its large phone provider service, may also be shielded from federal oversight under the new FCC chair, Ajit Pai. The FCC’s recent change in leadership ended the government agency’s willingness to defend the caps it placed on prison phone calls in 2015. That change improved the odds that prison phone calls will continue to yield steady profits for people and companies willing to ignore the impact on the people forced to pay obscene rates and fees.

By investing in Securus, Tom Gores’ Platinum Equity joins the ranks of those companies that care about social responsibility – only when it does not affect their bottom line.

by Emily Widra, May 9, 2017

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the psychological research on the difference between video communication and face-to-face communication. Throughout the literature, I found that video communication – and therefore video visitation – falls short of face-to-face, in-person interactions.

The Prison Policy Initiative has been following the disturbing trend of jails ending in-person visitation and replacing it with video visitation. The problems with eliminating in-person visits come up again and again in the news coverage; but every time, the people behind bars and their families say it best. When looking for reasons to protect in-person visitation, all we need to do is listen to them:

“They’re probably less than 500 feet away from you and you feel like they’re still in another state…You can never look someone in the eye. It’s impossible.”
Richard Fisk, on video visitation with his mother, after she travelled 1,700 miles to sit at a video screen in the Travis County Correctional Facility, where he was incarcerated

“Those personal, intimate aspects of someone who loves you — that doesn’t show.”
Jorge Renaud, on his experience with video-visitation in a Texas jail in 2014

“Even if it’s through plexiglass, at least you can have some kind of live interaction with your loved one… That would have made it better for me and him to maintain that human contact. Just because someone committed a crime doesn’t stop the love you have with them.”
Susan Gregory, on her visits with her husband, who was incarcerated for six months in an Arizona facility where in-person visitation was eliminated

“It’s not something you can quantify… Eye contact is a huge deal. It’s blowing them kisses and putting your hand to the glass. The kids get lost with the video terminals. It’s just not the same experience. It’s a disconnected feeling.”
Lauren Johnson, on her family’s decision to travel and wait for in-person visitations instead of opting for video visitation at the Travis County Correctional Facility, prior to the elimination of in-person visitation

“As a kid, I went to prison. The environment in there, you are depraved of contact from family… Just seeing someone from the glass and putting your hand up there makes a positive difference for inmates. You cannot do that with video visitation.”
Josh Gravens, Soros Justice Fellow, previously incarcerated at age 12 for three years, discussing the psychological and emotional benefits of in-person visitation

These stories illuminate the real-life deficits of video visitation that explain why families prefer in-person, through-the-glass visits. As I found last year, research shows that video communication hinders the natural flow of conversation, slows the process of establishing trust, impedes the intimacy and social connection of in-person interactions, shortens conversations, and restrains interactivity and responsiveness. As these quotes show, incarcerated people and their families maintain trust, relationships, and community connection through eye-contact and face-to-face interactions.

As sheriffs in New Jersey and California consider eliminating in-person visitation in jails, the firsthand experiences of incarcerated people and their families remind us that in-person visitation is crucial to the reentry process and reducing recidivism.

by Wendy Sawyer and Emily Widra, May 8, 2017

Over 7,000 women in the United States received a new HIV diagnosis in 2015, and over 60% of those women were Black, despite the fact that Black people represent just 12% of the overall U.S. population.

While policymakers seem oblivious to this pressing health problem, Prof. Laurie Shrage’s 2015 New York Times op-ed drew our attention to research that unravels the complicated nature of HIV risk factors among Black women. In general, Black men and women report less risky drug use and less risky sexual behaviors than whites; so what accounts for the disproportionately high number of HIV infections among Black women?

From researchers, an unexpected explanation

The current interdisciplinary research points to an unexpected explanation: the mass incarceration of Black men.

Two University of California professors, Rucker Johnson & Steven Raphael investigated the complicated relationship between infection rates and incarceration. Their findings reveal that “the lion’s share of the racial differentials in AIDS infections rates for both men and women are attributable to racial differences in incarceration trends.”

The “trend” in question, of course, is the hyper-incarceration of Black men over the last few decades. Between 1974 and 2001, the likelihood of incarceration for Black men increased from 13.4% to 32.2%. The racial disparity is now extreme: in 2015, Black men were almost six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

Side by side graphs showing the rates of male incarceration by race and the rates of new HIV infections among women by race. Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white men, and the rate of HIV infection is twenty times higher for Black women than white women. Johnson and Raphael (2009) conclude that if it weren’t for the racial disparity in male incarceration, Black women would have lower rates of HIV infection than white women.

To explain the connection between the disproportionate incarceration of Black men and the HIV rates of non-incarcerated Black women, Johnson and Raphael point to:

  1. high rates of HIV in prisons
  2. risky sexual activity among men in prisons
  3. sexual networks with a large number of lifetime partners
  4. destabilized relationships (defined by periodic absences of the incarcerated partner), and
  5. a disproportionate ratio of non-incarcerated Black men to women.

To begin with, they found that the rates of risky sexual activity, and therefore the risk of HIV infection, among incarcerated men is significantly higher than in non-incarcerated populations. In particular, the sexual networks in prisons – where “a small number of individuals have repeated sexual encounters with a large number of partners” – increases the efficiency of HIV transmission. And considering that condoms are widely considered contraband in correctional facilities, the risk for STIs is heightened regardless of the number of sexual partners.

Women who have a sexual partner with a history of incarceration are at an elevated risk of HIV infection. By forcing partners to spend long stretches of time apart, incarceration often causes breakups or on-again, off-again relationships, increasing the number of lifetime partners – a major risk factor for HIV – for both the incarcerated and non-incarcerated partners.

With 1 in 15 Black adult men behind bars , incarceration also disproportionately reduces the ratio of Black men to Black women. Because the overwhelming majority of sexual relationships and marriages occur between individuals of the same age group, race, ethnicity, and geographic location, this means Black women have less ability to be selective in choosing a partner and/or in negotiating safer sexual behaviors. In particular, heterosexual Black women are more likely to have sexual partners in “high risk groups,” that is, men with a history of incarceration.

Prevention: Improving re-entry services

Incarceration does not just impact the lives of those behind bars; it reaches far into communities, jeopardizing the health status of the partners and families these men return to. This is largely because of the particular vulnerability of formerly incarcerated people when they are first released. At the same time these men are returning to their relationships and families, their risk of transmitting HIV is elevated and their access to treatment is limited.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, former president of the International AIDS Society, explains that “people are being released [from prison] without access to services and they experience treatment interruption,” which in turn causes their viral load to spike. After release, Black men are not connected to structured care in the community to assure treatment adherence (there are some facilities with HIV transitional case management, but not much data on how effective and replicable these programs are.)

In a recent study of HIV care among criminal justice involved individuals in Washington, D.C., researchers found that despite reliable access to HIV treatment providers prior to, during, and after incarceration, HIV treatment adherence drops significantly after being released.

The stigma of HIV infection may also be part of the problem. As Phill Wilson, President of the Black AIDS Institute, explains, “they’re stigmatized because they’re Black, stigmatized because they’re ex-prisoners and they’re stigmatized because they’re HIV positive… What sane person is actually going to disclose that they’re HIV positive?”

The higher risk of HIV infection among women is one of many collateral consequences of mass incarceration facing communities of color. To better protect Black women from HIV infection, we need to eliminate the gap in HIV/AIDS treatment for Black men released from prisons and jails. Correctional agencies should coordinate with community health providers to ensure continuity of care and support treatment adherence. Reuniting with partners and families should improve the well-being of communities, not add to their problems.

by Wendy Sawyer, May 8, 2017

This Mother’s Day, 120,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children. Over half of all women in U.S. prisons – and 80% of women in jails – are mothers, most of them primary caretakers of their children. An estimated 9,000 women are pregnant upon arrival to prison or jail each year. Yet most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, and many are held in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail. The good news is this year, you can take action to help reconnect children with their mothers.

National Mama’s Bail Out action

During this week, a collection of over two dozen local and national organizations will bail out as many mothers as possible, who would otherwise spend Mother’s Day in a cell simply because they cannot afford bail. This effort focuses on bailing out Black mothers (including birth, trans, and other women who mother); Black children are seven times more likely than white children to have a parent incarcerated. Over a dozen cities are participating across the country. You can donate bail funds here.

Bills to keep primary caretakers out of prison

In Massachusetts, the “Primary Caretakers” bill (S. 770) would allow parents and other primary caretakers convicted of nonviolent crimes to request a non-prison alternative. Once enacted, courts would make written findings about caregiver status and availability of alternatives before sentencing. Tennessee’s HB 825 and SB 919 follow the model of the Massachusetts bill. If you live in one of these states, you can find your legislator to weigh in on these bills.

Harms to children caused by parental incarceration

Keeping parents out of jail and prison is critical to protect children from the known harms of parental incarceration, including:

Incarceration punishes more than just individuals; entire families suffer the effects long after a sentence ends. Mother’s Day reminds us again that people behind bars are not nameless “offenders,” but beloved family members and friends whose presence – and absence – matters.

by Wendy Sawyer, May 3, 2017

Yesterday, we raised over $2,500 in individual donations through Valley Gives, an annual giving event in western Massachusetts. We are grateful to all of our supporters: our neighbors in the Pioneer Valley and allies across the country that sustain us year after year, and new friends who have just recently discovered our work. Together with a generous donor who offered a matching gift of $2,500, we raised over $5,000, exceeding our Valley Gives goal.

Over the years, individual donor support has allowed us the flexibility to take on critical emerging issues, like the exploitation of incarcerated people and their families and bail practices that punish the poor. The Prison Policy Initiative has a small staff but accomplishes so much because we are able to draw on a broad network of dedicated reform-minded folks who are generous with their time, thoughts, and resources. We are thrilled to welcome some new supporters to the movement through Valley Gives, and thank you all for helping make it such a success!

by Lucius Couloute, May 2, 2017

Recently released research finds that thousands of older incarcerated people are being forced to live in some form of solitary confinement on any given day. The practice of cutting human beings off from human contact is widely condemned, but this practice is particularly troubling since it means we are subjecting a large number of older adults to living conditions that can cause or exacerbate serious medical conditions. As prisons continue to get grayer, policymakers must understand that denying older incarcerated people access to sunlight, exercise, and interaction with other people and spaces is both inhumane and fiscally irresponsible.

While the total rate of imprisonment has been going down since 2003, the rate for those 45 or older has been increasing steadily.

‘Solitary confinement’ is, in fact, a highly contested term; some prison systems deny that they employ solitary confinement and prefer lighter, more administrative-sounding phrases such as SHUs (special housing units) or SMUs (special management units). Terminology aside, these units mean segregation from the rest of the prison population and people are typically forced to remain in their cells for over 22 hours a day with minimal human interaction. Solitary confinement is used at the discretion of correctional staff for a variety of reasons, ranging from punishing (or protecting) individuals, to housing people when other, normal, cells are not available.

Whatever name it’s given, and whatever the reasons for putting people there, the evidence is clear that solitary confinement causes undeniable harm and can create a host of negative psychological issues for all people including:

  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Withdrawal
  • Aggression
  • Paranoia
  • Depression; and even
  • Suicidal behaviors

From academics to Supreme Court Justices, and even the United Nations, the use of solitary confinement has drawn substantial criticism and is widely considered inhumane, especially for vulnerable groups such as the mentally ill and juveniles. But there’s another group whose lives are put in danger when they are forced to live in extreme isolation – older incarcerated people.

Because older adults are more likely to have chronic health conditions such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and lower respiratory disease, solitary confinement puts their long-term physical and mental wellbeing in danger. For the 73% of incarcerated people over 50 who report experiencing at least one chronic health condition, solitary confinement is especially hazardous.

Until now it’s been difficult to pin down exactly how many older adults are forced into solitary confinement each year, but a new report provides some answers. Based on survey data from 41 states, researchers from Yale and the Association of State Correctional Administrators find that over 6,400 men and women age 50 and older are living in some form of restrictive housing on any given day. (The survey’s definition of restricted housing includes all individuals housed in their cells for 22 hours per day or more for at least 15 days.)

But while 6,400 people is substantial, this number is just a snapshot and doesn’t reflect all of the older incarcerated people who have experienced the harm of solitary during a particular year. Using two Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, I estimate that more than 44,000 people 45 and older experience solitary in state prisons each year.1 This is more than the entire prison populations of countries like Canada, Australia, and El Salvador.

The obvious conclusion is that solitary isn’t some rarely used method of punishment, only used for younger, more threatening “offenders”. It’s the norm – even for older folks.

The effects of solitary on older people can be dangerous. According to Dr. Brie Williams of the University of California, solitary confinement increases the risk that older incarcerated people will develop or exacerbate chronic health conditions:

  • A lack of sunlight can cause vitamin D deficiencies and greater risk of fractured bones
  • Sensory deprivation from prolonged confinement in an empty room can worsen mental health and lead to memory loss
  • Limits on space hinder mobility, which is crucial for maintaining health through exercise.

Unfortunately, there is no publically available data on why people are put into solitary, nor do we have good information on specific conditions and outcomes related to the practice. This data shortage is, in large part, because prison officials do not want their widely-used strategy to be studied in the light.

Luckily, people are beginning to take notice. Last year, spurred by public campaigns against the practice, President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and people who commit low-level infractions in federal prisons. But these limited reforms have not translated into widespread changes in the way we treat incarcerated people who are older and thus more susceptible to health problems.

We know that around 2,000 people age 55 and over die in state prisons each year and that upon release the formerly incarcerated are at greater risk of death due to cardiovascular disease and suicide compared to non-incarcerated individuals. Putting a population that is less likely to recidivate in conditions that contribute to these statistics is counterproductive at best. Going forward, it’s crucial that we think about how practices such as solitary confinement contribute to mortality statistics and poor health outcomes both within prisons and during the reentry process.

For the 95% of incarcerated people who will eventually return to communities across the nation, solitary confinement almost guarantees that they do so as less healthy individuals. This affects state and local resources beyond the costs of incarceration; the health costs of older adults are expected to rise substantially in the coming years, most of which will be paid for through taxpayer funded health programs. Viewed from a public health perspective, subjecting thousands of aging individuals to prolonged periods of immobility and isolation is dangerous and strains our medical infrastructure.

It’s time that state prison officials consider abolishing solitary, especially for older incarcerated people, similar to what lawmakers in New Jersey intended with S51 last year. The people we imprison aren’t lab rats (although treating animals this way is widely considered immoral), they are human beings who will be released back into society someday. Abandoning the practice of solitary is the next crucial step to chip away at the human and public health costs of mass incarceration.



  1. Unfortunately, the available data required me to count people who are 45 and above as “older”, whereas the Yale/Liman study defined “older” adults as those people above 50. In order to calculate the estimate I used two Bureau of Justice Statistics reports (“Aging of the State Prison Population, 1993–2013” and “Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011–12”). According to the National Inmate Survey 2011-12, 13.1% of incarcerated people between 45-54 years old report spending time in restrictive housing at some point in the last 12 months or since admission to the facility, if shorter. For incarcerated people 55 and older that number is 8.9%. By multiplying these percentages with the total number of people in state prisons of equivalent ages in 2013 I was able to produce an estimate of 44,295 people in state prisons who experience some form of solitary each year. This number is a rough approximation, since multiple survey instruments are involved, but due to the lack of available systematic data, it provides us with a useful glimpse into the practice of solitary confinement for older adults.  ↩

by Lucius Couloute, April 28, 2017

Last year, as part of the Obama Administration’s agenda on criminal justice reform, acting Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared April 24th-30th National Reentry Week. Unfortunately, the current administrations seems to have shelved the idea, in favor of appearing tougher on crime and cracking down on drugs in the “inner-city”. But we want to take the opportunity to join grassroots leaders across the country in drawing attention to the importance of reentry today.

At a time when the future of mass incarceration is unclear, it is important to recognize that our criminal justice policy decisions have real and lasting consequences for millions of people across the country. And although the current administration appears to be interested in reframing the debate, history suggests that the ‘tough-on-crime’ strategy, especially as it pertains to drug use, is a flawed one.

As a sociologist examining the difficult road of reentry for formerly incarcerated people, I’ve listened to countless stories about the harms of addiction.
Very frequently I hear from formerly incarcerated people about how ordinary tasks like going to work, taking care of kids, or taking classes are made much more difficult when contending with a present or past dependence on drugs.

But it isn’t just that addiction makes life difficult. Even when formerly incarcerated people feel they’ve kicked their habit, the effects of having been formally criminalized because of an addiction can actually work against recovery.

When I asked about his robbery convictions and their connection to his decades-long struggle with heroin, Alex, a 49 year-old Latino man told me:

“[My crimes] are a means to keep getting money to keep getting high … And in my case I get so messed up that I say, ‘you know something? Time for me to go back in and clean myself up, gain some weight and try [to stay sober] again.’ But that place is only going to mess you up more, mentally. Because … addiction services in prison are almost nonexistent.”

Alex isn’t exaggerating about the lack of drug treatment available to incarcerated people. Despite the fact that an estimated 80% of incarcerated people are dealing with some form of addiction, only about 11% of the people who need treatment actually receive it in prison or jail.

The good news is that states are beginning to recognize that addiction is a medical issue and should probably be addressed outside of correctional facilities. Unfortunately, though, the criminalization of drug dependence has wreaked havoc on communities of color for years and continues to shape the lives of people like Alex.

Alex spends most of his time now looking for jobs, safe places to stay, and fighting off the urge to use – but having a criminal record makes each of these tasks difficult. He believes people like him are alone in their battle for a better life. But as he puts it, “We did that to ourselves. Because we keep repeating the same mistakes so many times that people lose faith in us. People give up.” Having constantly been told that his personal choices led to his criminal record, Alex’s cynicism reflects an institutional-level inability to address the source of his criminal behavior – a dependence on heroin.

By misrecognizing crime as a function of character our criminal justice system does little to help people like Alex lead law-abiding lives.

And confounding the causes of crime, in this way, occurs more than we think. Current estimates suggest that about 20% of incarcerated people are locked up because of a drug offense, but drugs probably play a role in a far greater number of criminal offenses than the statistics imply. People in prison for multiple offenses are reported in official records only for the most serious ones, so some people incarcerated for “violent” offenses might have also been charged with a drug offense too. Not to mention that about 1/3rd of people who commit crimes are estimated to have been using drugs at the time of their last offense.

In many cases that don’t appear to be driven by drug-seeking behavior (like Alex’s robbery convictions), addiction very well may have played a significant role. Yet as Alex points out, few people receive holistic long-term services before, during, or even after their incarceration.

Effective treatment is costly, yes, but compared to the cost of incarceration, drug treatment is a bargain. If we fail to provide people suffering from addiction the resources they need to function, the criminal justice system will continue to squander taxpayer dollars in an endless cycle of incarceration, release, and re-incarceration.

As National Reentry Week 2017 comes to an end, it’s time to recognize that if we really care about taxpayers’ dollars, public safety, and the wellbeing of all communities, prisons and jails should be the last places we want to put people suffering from addiction.

by Wendy Sawyer, April 25, 2017

On Tuesday, May 2, we’ll be participating in Valley Gives, a 24-hour online giving event for nonprofit organizations located in western Massachusetts. And this Valley Gives Day, a generous supporter will match the first $2,500 given to the Prison Policy Initiative.

In the past year, we have had historic successes in our major campaigns:

  • We organized an unprecedented 100,000 people to submit comments to the Census Bureau demanding an end to prison gerrymandering, including 13 U.S. Senators and 39 civil rights organizations.
  • Following the success of last year’s campaign in Massachusetts to eliminate an outdated law suspending driver’s licenses for drug offenses unrelated to driving, we expanded our campaign nationally. So far, we’ve seen progress in D.C., Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, and just this month legislation was introduced in Congress that would repeal the federal law.
  • Local jails are allowing private companies to replace in-person visits with expensive, low-quality “video visitation,” as our research has shown. Fortunately, policymakers in Illinois and New Jersey have stepped up to protect crucial in-person visits, and we continue to fight this damaging and exploitative practice.
  • We’re also pushing for criminal justice reform in our home state of Massachusetts. In a recent report, we showed that probation fees hit the state’s poorest communities hardest. Legislation introduced this year would eliminate probation fees for more people under community supervision, and ensure that no one is locked up because they can’t afford a fee.

Together with individual supporters like you, we’ve been able to accomplish so much in the past year. The need for criminal justice reform – and to protect the reforms we’ve achieved – has never been more urgent. So please donate by May 2nd to double the impact of your gift. As always, we thank you for your support.

You can visit our Valley Gives page here:

by Lucius Couloute, April 24, 2017

ACA policy on family-friendly communication and visitationAs we mentioned in our January 2015 report, in four conferences going back to 2001, our nation’s leading professional organization for correctional officials, the American Correctional Association, has consistently declared that “visitation is important” and “reaffirmed its promotion of family-friendly communication policies between offenders and their families.”

Last August, the American Correctional Association went further by explicitly declaring that emerging technologies (like video visitation) should only be used to supplement existing in-person visitation.

The ACA isn’t the only national association to take a stand; the American Bar Association’s standards state that video visitation should not replace in-person visitation.

These resolutions are important because they tell the hundreds of jails that have replaced in-person visits with video visitation that these jails are violating correctional best practices.

Since jails incarcerate people who tend to be extremely poor, video visitation can come at a great cost to their families. At up to $1.50 per minute, a single 15-minute video visit can be the difference between buying a day’s worth of food, or forgoing groceries to speak with a loved one. The American Correctional Association understands this economic reality, urging correctional facilities to “not place unreasonable financial burdens upon the offender or their family and friends.”

As a supplement to in-person visits, video visitation can help connect families who are far apart. We are thrilled to see the ACA include in their Public Correctional Policies the common sense idea that emerging technologies should supplement – not replace – in person visits.

For more information on this issue and to see country wide press coverage, see our report and organizing on the for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails.

by Stephen Raher, April 24, 2017

The apparent suicide of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez has received much media attention, due to Mr. Hernandez’s celebrity status. While many news reports noted that Mr. Hernandez was recently acquitted of additional murder charges, I wanted to highlight one of his experiences while awaiting trial: a civil lawsuit against prison telecom company Securus.

What happened?

While he was awaiting trial, Hernandez was held in the Suffolk County Jail in Massachusetts. The county has chosen Securus as the exclusive provider of telecom services for people incarcerated in the jail. According to a document we received, Securus has determined that an unauthorized person (or people) accessed recordings of Mr. Hernandez’s phone calls. Securus later informed the federal court that the recorded calls were between Hernandez and his fiancée.

Mr. Hernandez sued Securus in Massachusetts state court, alleging invasion of privacy and other related claims. Securus tried to move the case to federal court, but in March 2017, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts concluded that the lawsuit did not implicate federal law, and sent it back to state court, where it is still pending.

What does this mean for incarcerated people and the loved ones they talk to?

Securus’s self-serving “Integrity Pledge” claims that the company understands and honors “confidentiality of calls.” But as with so much corporate PR, when something actually goes wrong, Securus’s commitment to stated principles is nowhere to be found. In response to Mr. Hernandez’s lawsuit, Securus argued that Hernandez couldn’t sue for unauthorized access to call recordings, because “inmates have no expectation of privacy in their communications” and thus Hernandez “suffered no cognizable privacy injury.”

Notably, Hernandez was not suing because jail officials listened to his calls, but rather because he believed that Securus didn’t take adequate steps to prevent a hacker from breaking into the database of recordings and listening to private conversations. Most people realize that law enforcement can listen to non-privileged jail phone calls (Securus has also been accused of illegally taping privileged attorney-client phone calls, but this did not appear to have happened in Hernandez’s case); however, this should not mean that private phone calls can be shared with anyone in the world. Nonetheless, this is basically what Securus is arguing when it says that Hernandez doesn’t even have a right to go to court.

What additional concerns does this raise for families and friends of incarcerated people?

The same privacy concerns discussed above also apply to family and friends who call or video-chat with incarcerated people. But folks on the outside have another potential source of worry: they are often granting Securus access to their personal computers.

In the case of video visitation, Securus requires users to install a Java applet that—according to Securus—allows the transmission of audio and video. When users install the applet, they receive a warning that the applet “run[s] with unrestricted access which may put your computer and personal information at risk.” Screenshot of Securus unrestricted access applet This warning suggests that Securus’s applet can potentially access unrelated information on a customer’s computer, like photos, emails, or other private files. This, in turn, raises several concerns, given the terms and conditions that customers must agree to.

First, Securus’s privacy policy states that customers agree that Securus can “receive[] and store[] certain information whenever [the customer uses video visitation].” But “certain information” is never defined. Are customers unwittingly granting Securus permission to snoop through their files or eavesdrop through their computer’s microphone? Probably not, but Securus’s confusingly-written contract doesn’t provide any assurances to the contrary.

Of greater concern is Secrurus’s language about monitoring by law enforcement. Securus forces its customers to agree to the following language:

Securus assumes no responsibility for the activities, omissions or other conduct of any member of Law Enforcement (a “Law Enforcement Official”). Relative to [video visitation], Securus acts solely as a portal for the online distribution and publication of electronically distributed information and has no obligation to screen communications or information in advance and is not responsible for screening or monitoring electronic communications sent via this Service.

If the Java applet does create a backdoor into a user’s computer (either intentionally or accidentally), then law enforcement could exploit this backdoor (either on their own or at Securus’s invitation), and access private information on a user’s computer. In such a scenario, Securus has set itself up to disclaim any liability—an argument that is foreshadowed in the Hernandez lawsuit.

Securus is able to charge high prices because it knows it can exploit the desire of families who want to maintain contact with their loved ones. Adding insult to injury, Securus now argues that its customers have no privacy rights whatsoever. And making matters even worse, Securus’s terms of service don’t clearly tell customers what information they are surrendering.

While Aaron Hernandez had the resources to fight back, most incarcerated people do not. This situation illustrates an increasingly obvious fact: as prisons adopt new technologies (like video visitation, electronic fund transfers, and electronic messaging), incarcerated people and their families will be unfairly exploited unless lawmakers get serious about extending consumer protections inside the prison walls.

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