Phones archives

by Aleks Kajstura, October 12, 2017

While we talk a lot about counties getting kick-backs from phone companies in return for granting monopoly contracts, we now have new research about a far more direct prison and jail phone company effort to sway sheriffs: campaign contributions.

As we highlighted two years ago, Securus was donating $10,000 a year to the Sacramento County sheriff, even though it did not have a contract with the county. We recently dug around a little deeper and discovered that Sacramento’s experience is not unique.

We found that GTL and Securus alone have donated over $70,000 to Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s campaigns in just 4 years (2010-2013):

Year GTL’s
Contributions
Securus’
Contributions
2010 $2,000 $10,000
2011 $400 $10,000
2012 $12,000 $10,000
2013 $15,000 $10,075

As we can see, prison and jail phone companies have been fueling Ahern’s campaign for years. And in 2012, their contributions accounted for nearly 25% of Ahern’s campaign expenditures.

Notably Sheriff Ahern runs the 14th largest jail system in the country; just one of his facilities is larger than the entire state prison system of 8 states. He used his substantial influence to organize and lead jail administrators to fight against jail phone regulation while also raking in at least $1.5 million in kickbacks from the phone companies.

The phone companies are making contributions in other counties too:

Jail phone company Contribution County Year
CenturyLink $1,000 Clark County, NV 2014
Securus $1,675 Contra Costa County, CA 2013
Securus $500 Duval County, FL 2014
Telmate $500 San Francisco County, CA 2015

These contributions may seem small compared to those in Alameda and Sacramento, but the cost of running for sheriff varies, so these contributions might be enough to sway their respective elections. (And of course, phone companies buy other county officials as well.)

Finally, these findings represent just a handful of the country’s 3,163 jails. Much more work needs to be done to uncover the full impact of jail phone companies on sheriff races, and what that means for families trying to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones.

 

 

Special thanks to Sasha Feldstein and Sari Kisilevsky, our Young Professionals Network volunteers, for their hours spent sifting through the data, as well as Alex Clark and Elliot Oberholtzer for their additional research and compilation.


by Bernadette Rabuy, September 26, 2017

The public, the media, and policymakers agree: replacing in-person jail visits with video calls is foolish and needlessly cruel. In an article last week, VC Daily, which describes itself as a niche community of video conferencing enthusiasts, agreed: “Video conferencing technology has come a long way in the past decade, but even in its most experimental current forms it cannot replicate time spent with family and friends in the flesh…”

VC Daily was quick to acknowledge that it may seem like an unlikely supporter of in-person visits, and it explained why video calls are a poor replacement of in-person visits:

As much as we consider ourselves here at VC Daily to be cheerleaders for the technology and use of video conferencing, the bottom line is that video conferencing just isn’t the same as in-person communication. At least, not right now. It is a great substitute when distance and circumstance make sharing the same space impossible, impractical, or just plain expensive.

VC Daily understands that in-person jail visits are far from impossible, impractical, or expensive:

  • In-person jail visits are not impossible. Although this is quickly changing, most jails still provide in-person visits.
  • In-person jail visits are not impractical. In-person visits, not video calls, are the norm in state and federal prisons. Jails can and should provide in-person visits too, especially since families are generally able to visit incarcerated loved ones more easily when they are close by in a local jail than many miles away in a prison.
  • In-person jail visits are not expensive. Traditionally, jails did not charge families to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Charging families to see their incarcerated loved ones is one of the negative consequences of the growth of the video call industry and a practice discouraged by the American Correctional Association. Jails do expend resources to provide in-person visitation, but in-person visitation can lead to a reduction in recidivism so it’s a worthy investment.

VC Daily went on to admit that, even as a community of video conferencing enthusiasts, it believes that denying incarcerated people human contact infringes on basic human needs:

However, as an L.A. Times editorial noted just a few months ago, once you start employing video conferencing to replace human physical interaction, you run the risk of dangerously undermining a person’s basic human needs… We usually end these posts dreaming of a hypothetical future in which video conferencing is the good guy, the tech that can make great things possible. But this certainly takes the fun out of our hypothetical.

VC Daily’s critique gets at the heart of what is so perverse about the way that jails use video calls: it’s a rare example of a technology being used to separate, rather than connect, people. This harmful practice is in part why VC Daily concludes, “[v]ideo conferencing is an addition to our lives, not the venue for them.”


by Lucius Couloute, September 7, 2017

comment letter

Due, in part, to our work on the video calling industry, most policymakers now recognize that in-person jail visits should not be replaced with glitchy, expensive, and impersonal video calls.

In states like Texas, California, and Illinois legislators have made it a point to ensure that incarcerated people get to see their loved ones face-to-face by prohibiting correctional facilities from eliminating in-person visits.

In Maine, however, the Department of Corrections (who holds the authority to set jail standards) is considering a move that would put them at odds with the national consensus: eliminating the requirement that Maine jails provide in-person contact visits, allowing them to instead provide video-only “visits”.

The DOC solicited comments on the proposed changes, so we submitted a letter detailing why the policy change would hurt families. You can read the full text of the letter, above. It concludes:

The DOC, on its own website, states that its mission is to “reduce the likelihood that juvenile and adult offenders will re-offend by providing practices, programs, and services which are evidence based.” Replacing in-person visits with video calling flies in the face of established evidence and punishes the families of incarcerated people who only wish to support their incarcerated loved ones. On behalf of incarcerated people looking to maintain their support systems, and their families, we urge the DOC to maintain in-person visits.

At a recent hearing, over 20 people testified against the proposed changes. We now await the final decision.


by Bernadette Rabuy, September 6, 2017

As we’ve explained, jails affect state prison outcomes. This might explain why California state legislators have been so concerned about the harmful trend of local jails replacing in-person visits with video calls. In the 2015-2016 legislation cycle, the California legislature approved SB 1157, which would have required jails to provide in-person visits, but Governor Brown vetoed the legislation. In his veto message, the governor asked the state regulatory body that sets jail visitation regulations, the Board of State and Community Corrections, to investigate the issue.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but SB 1157 was just the beginning of the struggle to protect in-person visits in California jails. After the veto, I learned that California legislators were planning an informational hearing at the state Capitol on video calls, and I was invited to testify on the Prison Policy Initiative’s research.

The timing worked out well. Days before the informational hearing, the Board of State and Community Corrections released proposed revisions to the jail visitation regulations. The regulations, which were later approved, prohibit jails from replacing in-person visits with video calls but exempt jails that had already eliminated in-person visits.

At the hearing, the legislators were colorful and adamant in their critiques of video calls. While the support from members of the public, legislators, and the press has been unanimous since we started our national campaign to protect in-person visits, it was still a rare and powerful sight to see legislators standing so strongly on the side of incarcerated people and their families. And the legislators pinpointed the dangers of banning in-person visits in a way that’s helpful for anyone in the country hoping to protect family visits:

  • Eliminating in-person visits is contrary to reducing recidivism and supporting rehabilitation.

    In 2011, California adopted Realignment in order to comply with a court order to reduce the state’s prison population. Realignment consists of shifting non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual state prisoners from state prisons to county jails. As Senator Nancy Skinner pointed out, there was a secondary rationale for Realignment. California legislators and Governor Jerry Brown reasoned that imprisoning people in jails, which are generally closer to home, could lead to greater visitation. Because visits have been shown to reduce recidivism, in theory, imprisoning people in jails rather than prisons could reduce recidivism.

    But as we’ve previously explained, there is no evidence that video calls have the same effect on recidivism as in-person visits. In fact, replacing in-person visits with video calls works against the goal of reducing recidivism because it can reduce visitation. In Travis County, Texas jails, banning in-person visits led the total number of visits to drop by 28% from September 2009 to September 2013. Thus, as state legislators aimed to increase visitation, county sheriffs were impeding visitation by leaving families with nothing more than low-quality video calls.

  • As much as possible, states should not exempt counties from having to provide in-person visits.

    As I previously noted, the Board of State and Community Corrections’ regulations prohibit jails from replacing in-person visits with video calls but exempt jails that had already decided to eliminate in-person visits. While Texas similarly exempted some counties from having to provide in-person visits, the key California legislators were more public about their belief that the exemption would let too many counties off the hook. In California, counties received exemptions for jails that were built without physical space for in-person visits and jails that were in the midst of construction or renovation that would culminate in only providing video calls. But some counties received exemptions when they were fully capable of providing in-person visits in a jail but had simply decided not to. In response to the exemption, Senator Skinner said,

    I’ve got six that were built without visitation, so you know, maybe those are the six…that one could, perhaps, make a case for having difficulty…but, the first 10, it seems really hard to imagine why, when they already have that in-person space, the [regulations] would allow them to ban it.

    Similarly, Assemblymember Shirley Weber pointed out,

    I find it…difficult to digest that we would have facilities that have space, but would still refuse to have in-person visitations. What is the theory behind this?…There has to be some rationale…I assume the people who work in those facilities are… the leaders in the area [of] public safety and criminal justice…So what is the rationale for that?

    Skinner and Weber were in disbelief that the exemption was crafted so broadly. The Board of State and Community Corrections defended the expansive exemption, saying that some counties built jails in recent years without physical space for in-person visits. When SB 1157 was introduced, these counties claimed that it would cost too much money to bring back in-person visits now that they had jails built without visitation rooms. But as the legislators pointed out, the Board of State and Community Corrections was exempting more than just those counties and it failed to provide any research or policy-based rationale for exempting counties that had the physical space to provide in-person visits.

    Assemblymember Jones Sawyer rejected the idea that counties constructing or renovating jails in order to eliminate in-person visits should be exempted. Jones Sawyer explained that it wasn’t too late for the Board of State and Community Corrections to require these counties to change their plans,

    I worked several years in the city of Los Angeles. I left as the director of real estate. I’ve actually built a jail in the city of L.A…. All of them can have [in-person] visitation in them…and you can require that…It can be done, and it can be done quickly, even on the end of construction.

    The legislators agreed that the regulations were a half-hearted attempt to protect in-person visits.

  • Because of the two-way relationship between state and local criminal justice systems, states should look for ways to influence harmful local criminal justice policies.

    The state legislators were also upset that state money was being used in the construction and renovation of local jails that eliminated in-person visits. As Senator Skinner said, “The state is paying most of the bill for these county facilities…so in theory, the state should be able to make these decisions.” Senator Mitchell, the author of SB 1157, similarly expressed,

    I’m very glad that the budget subcommittee chairs for public safety are here, and I hope that you will take [this] into account as we make future decisions about funding allocations for the constructions of jails…that we’re clear about what state policies, what state expectations they will adhere to because perhaps we should turn off the spigot.

    The legislators expressed some support for local control of criminal justice policies, but they did not want to financially support a harmful trend that was working against the state’s goal of reducing recidivism. The legislators also felt that the Board of State and Community Corrections was fully aware of the legislators’ support for in-person visits since they approved SB 1157 with bipartisan, bicameral support.

The hearing was the most tense and lively visit to the California Capitol I’ve experienced. It was powerful to witness legislators so animated over an issue that primarily affects incarcerated people and their families, a population that is too often ignored. The legislators’ sharp analysis of the harm of banning in-person visits was also a reminder that this campaign should not exist on the fringes of the larger movement to end mass incarceration. Assemblymember Weber might have captured the urgent need to protect in-person jail visits best, “I feel like we’ve made some steps forward in this whole area of criminal justice, every time we seem to go forward, there seems to be some problem to drag us back. And some of these problems appear to be small, but they really have huge consequences.”

Update: In June, Governor Brown signed the 2017-2018 California budget, including AB 103, which statutorily requires jails to provide in-person visits rather than video calls. Like the approved regulations, the budget trailer bill exempts counties that had already decided to eliminate in-person visits. The bill is a step forward because it adds a statutory layer of protection for in-person visits and protects in-person visits in more California counties. The Board of State and Community Corrections has put the approved regulations on hold to ensure that the regulations conform with AB 103.


by Peter Wagner, August 28, 2017

The largest phone provider in prisons and jails, which incarcerated people use to call home, has just gotten bigger. GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) has purchased its competitor Telmate.

In the broken market that is the prison and jail telephone business, families pay high costs because the companies compete not on the basis of low prices or high quality, but on which company will share the most revenue with the facility that awarded the company the monopoly contract. That’s how, in an era of unlimited long distance and free Skype calls, costs to receive a call from an incarcerated loved one have surpassed $1/minute.

By purchasing Telmate, GTL has eliminated a small but very quickly growing competitor. Telmate had contracts with two state prison systems (Montana and Oregon) and contracts with almost a hundred local jails. The company was one of the more innovative companies in the space, although their biggest contribution to the market might have been various kinds of creative accounting tricks that transferred money from customers’ pockets to Telmate without federal and state tax collectors or correctional facilities catching on.

Now that the number of major national companies competing for contracts has declined to just two (GTL and Securus), it will be that much harder for facilities that want to lower prices to do so. How bad is GTL and Securus’ domination of the industry? Our research associate Alex Clark determined each company’s market share as of July 2017 and prepared this chart:

Table 1 Market dominance of prison telephone providers prior to GTL purchase of Telmate. Percentage of market is calculated by the most recently available reported population of each county facility or state prison system. This table shows a range of values because some providers have outdated information on their websites about who has a given contract and we were not always able to confirm which provider to credit with that contract. The actual values should therefore lie within the range given. Each jail system is counted as one contract even if the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Census of Jails separately counted individual facilities in that jail system. Similarly, each state prison system was counted as one contract regardless of the number of facilities in the state prison system.
Phone vendor Number of contracts Percent of market
Private companies
GTL 377-586 46.0% – 52.9%
Securus 635-794 15.0% – 19.4%
CenturyLink 6-20 10.6% – 11.5%
ICSolutions 129-288 3.7% – 6.3%
Telmate 101-157 1.9% – 3.1%
Paytel 151 1.3%
NCIC 169-170 0.9% – 1.0%
CenturyLink & ICSolutions working together in Nevada 1 0.7%
Legacy Inmate 46-61 0.4% – 0.6%
Regent 15-44 0.2% – 1.0%
AmTel 26-29 0.2% – 0.3%
Reliance 145-154 0.2%
Government-run systems
Bureau of Prisons (has their own system) 1 7.90%
Iowa Department of Corrections (has their own system, buys bandwidth wholesale from from ICSolutions) 1 0.40%
Maine Department of Corrections (has their own system, with assistance from Legacy Inmate) 1 0.10%
None of the above 709 1.80%

 

Fewer companies will mean less choice for facilities

Because the primary differentiation between vendors is cost, having fewer companies compete for contracts will mean less choice for the facility that awards the contracts and less of an incentive for the companies to offer good deals.

Continue reading →


by Lucius Couloute, August 9, 2017

Correctional facilities that implement video calling technology typically argue that they are providing a better way for families to stay in touch. But as our national research shows, the introduction of this technology almost always signals a roll back of in-person visits and a new way of extracting profits from captive consumers.

One of the many grassroots organizations organizing around the harms of the video “visitation” racket is the Durham Inside-Outside Alliance; their blog is a must-read for people working on this issue in other states. In particular, it highlights the voices of incarcerated people who are reshaping the debate around poorly functioning and expensive video calling technology.

Here’s what incarcerated people have to say:

“About this (video) visitation, I think it’s bogus because a lot of parents come to visit their kids and the only way they know that they are fine is through a real visit. Seeing and knowing that they’re fine. You can’t tell through a phone visit, that doesn’t give that fist bump, that ‘I love you’ smile, or that one moment where you gotta shed that tear and the person on the other side of the glass tells you, ‘Hey, don’t worry, it’s gonna be ok…’”

Another person goes on to say:

“All of my family and friends live 2-3 hours away! So the few that are able to come see me drive all that way to see me for 20 minutes! Could you imagine driving that far to sit in front of a video screen instead of actually seeing their loved one in person?!”

Going to jail can be a terrifying experience; it separates people from their homes, jobs, friends, family, and freedom. The risk of unnatural death skyrockets in jail, due in part to the shocking disconnection from ordinary life that an abrupt period of incarceration can cause. Keeping in contact with loved ones can be one of the very few ways in which incarcerated people make it through; and as these quotes suggest, replacing in-person visits with substandard video chatting just isn’t good enough.

“The jail claims that they’re not going to do away with our face-to-face visits, that they added the video visits to give us more time with our family, in other words it’s [supposed] to be a win-win for us. Damn shame! They got a lie for every question people throw at them. If it was all about us getting more visits with our family, then why not give us face to face visits all throughout the week instead of spending money on all this new equipment? […] Them guards get to go home […] We don’t…”

And as another individual put it:

“What is the purpose of video visitation? The Sheriff claims it’s only an alternative – not a replacement – to face-to-face visits. If that’s true, then it would be advantageous to those who live hundreds of miles away and out of state, provided they can utilize Skype or some other home computer video to implement such visits.

I believe most detainees’ families live in or near Durham. If these family members are relegated to coming to the jail, only to sit before a monitor downstairs to see and communicate with us through another monitor upstairs, that would be a travesty of justice, an unnecessary invasion of privacy on our visits, and a waste of tax dollars.

Instinct and history tells me that video visitation is not going to be an alternative form of visitation. Rather, due time, face-to-face visits will be phased out to give the Sheriff a captive audience to charge exorbitant fees for visits. Otherwise, why try to fix what’s not broken? For the most part, detainees in jail have not been convicted of any crime. Under our system of jurisprudence, we are supposed to be deemed innocent until we are proven guilty. But in reality, this jail treats us in opposite fashion with this Board’s seal of approval.”

The incarcerated people writing to the Durham Inside-Outside Alliance are right to be concerned that in-person visits will be eliminated after the installation of video terminals. While some jails add off-site video calling to supplement in-person visitation, the only reason that jails build on-site video calling booths is so they can then ban traditional in-person visits. Correctional staff might not see the problem with preventing incarcerated people from seeing their loved ones in person, but for those behind bars who can’t go home at night, it means everything to them.

So what about the jail’s argument that video calls give incarcerated people more time with their families? Existing evidence says the opposite is more likely to be true. A survey conducted by Travis County (TX) Sheriff’s Office after they changed to video-only “visitation”, found that 91% of visitors reported that they would prefer face-to-face visitation. In fact, our analysis found that “visits” decreased by 28% after the sheriff banned in-person visitation. The simple truth is that replacing in person visits with poorly functioning video calling systems makes it harder – not easier – for families to maintain relationships.

Incarcerated people want to be able to communicate with their loved ones in a calm and comfortable environment because it helps maintain connections that will eventually aid in the reentry process. Forcing them to speak with visitors using video terminals placed in public areas only inhibits successful reentry.

If policymakers are legitimately concerned about making the transition out of correctional facilities as smooth as possible, they must incorporate the visitation-related concerns of incarcerated people. Because sometimes, the best answers are staring right back at us (and hopefully not through grainy video screens).


by Aleks Kajstura, July 31, 2017

In a continued effort to gain FCC approval of a sale to Gores, Securus is now complaining that advocates are using Securus’ published phone rates to show… well, Securus’ phone rates.

That put the Wright Petitioners in the rather awkward position of having to explain that they were doing exactly as Securus requested when it challenged everyone to look at the facts. Securus claimed that the average rate is about $0.18 per minute. To test out their claim, the Petitioners looked at the cost of calls to the home court of the Detroit Pistons, who are owned by Gores, the man interested in buying Securus. Here are the findings they reported to the FCC:

The data… was pulled directly from Securus’ rate calculator, reflects that no inmate in Michigan would be able to call the Palace of Auburn Hills for $.184 per minute, under any Securus calling plan. The least expensive call would be from the Wayne County facilities, and that rate is $0.50 per minute.

Thus, while Securus should be commended for urging the public to “look at the data – the data does not lie”, it is clear that Securus has presented data to the Commission in connection with the proposed transaction that is demonstrably false.… [I]t is inconceivable that every single correctional facility in the State of Michigan – with Securus serving more than 70 – is simply an outlier in comparison to Securus’ claimed average rate of $0.184 per minute.

And Securus’ pricing anomalies don’t stop at phone calls. Securus also claimed to charge “only $.24 per minute” for video visitation. But once again:

Securus charges far more than $.24 per minute for its video visitation services in a vast majority of its correctional facilities where it charges a fee, with the average rate for remote family members being $.35 per minute. Further… when Securus charges a fee for attorneys to have remote access to their clients, the vast majority of those rates are above $.24 as well, with the average per minute rate being $.38.


by Lucius Couloute, July 24, 2017

Last week Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017. This piece of legislation is an important step in the fight against exploitation in prisons and jails, and we encourage lawmakers, criminal justice professionals, and the general public to support its passing.

Although purportedly designed to help people communicate with incarcerated loved ones, video calling technology has typically been used in correctional facilities to replace – not supplement – in-person visits. In fact, 74% of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation, preventing incarcerated people from maintaining important ties with their loved ones.

The Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017 would require the FCC to regulate the use of video visitation and inmate calling services in correctional facilities (which it has moved away from under the new Chairman); protecting incarcerated people from the elimination of in-person visits, the high costs of calling services, and substandard video calling technologies.

Earlier this year, the Prison Policy Initiative, along with a coalition of concerned organizations, came together to support a previous version of this bill. With the number of facilities switching to video-only visits growing quickly, regulating the exploitive video visitation industry has become an urgent concern.

For incarcerated people who rely upon the support of loved ones, and for the millions of children who need to connect with their parents behind bars, it is crucial that we continue to support common-sense legislation like the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017.


by Lucius Couloute, June 28, 2017

Across the country jails are replacing in-person visits with video chats that can cost over $1 per minute; and as our national research on the 600+ facilities that have implemented video visitation illustrates, the collusion between local jails and telecom companies ignores the needs of incarcerated people and their loved ones in favor of profits.

In a new segment that aired on HBO last night, Vice News Tonight examined the growth of the exploitive video visitation industry in California; speaking with jail administrators, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and the families themselves in order to highlight the human toll of switching from the real thing to an artificial – and costly – substitute. Check out the piece above!


by Aleks Kajstura, June 21, 2017

The Prison Policy Initiative joined the Wright Petitioners, as well as other advocates in requesting that the FCC block the latest sale of Securus and investigate the company’s continued flouting of FCC regulations.

The filing highlights some of Securus’ most egregious rule-breaking, including predatory practices going back at least a decade. For example,

In short, per-call, per-connection and flat-rate charges have been prohibited for more than a year now. Securus fought the prohibition, and when it lost the fight, Securus it nevertheless continued the practice of charging the fees, but under a different name.

[W]hen the Commission adopted rules to prohibit per-call connection and flat-rate fees, Securus simply renamed its connection fees as “first-minute rates” and began charging even more money for the same prohibited charge.

And the last time Securus was sold, in 2013, the sale was allowed to go through because Securus promised to “not make any ‘changes in rates, terms, or conditions of service as a result of the transaction.’ … Securus failed to comply with that commitment by actually raising [in-state phone] rates across the country.”

If this sale goes through, Securus will ultimately be owned in part by Tom Gores; a curious acquisition for someone who owns the Detroit Pistons. You see, Securus’ shenanigans with the connection charges hit Michigan residents hardest. Gores’ own ties to the state, as well as the Detroit Piston’s own focus on commitment to their community, make one wonder why Gores would be interested in a company that charges some Michigan residents as much as $8.20 for just a single minute of a call from an incarcerated loved one.

Securus continues to fight regulations so that it can continue to exploit the country’s poorest families. While Securus went to court to fight caps on how much it could charge for calls, it re-jiggered its in-state rates to compensate for regulations banning exploitative charges for interstate calls. “As a result, a 15-minute [in-state] call from sixteen (16) county jails in Michigan, and twentyeight (28!) county jails overall, costs more than $20, entirely due to the fact that the first-minute rate at these correctional facilities is at least $5.00 higher than the charge for each additional minute.”

All this is even more distressing in light of what the Washington Post calls “A crushing court decision for prison inmates and their families.” The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently vacated the FCC’s in-state rate caps, and while the courts sort through some remaining questions, they leave families at Securus’ mercy for those calls, as we explained in February.

Securus fights against regulations and then flouts the ones that survive. This is a company that should be investigated, not sold off to the next owner who can stomach it.


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