Phones archives

by Lucius Couloute, June 13, 2017

In the U.S., we often hear ‘you do the crime, you do the time.’ But incarceration isn’t just an individual-level problem, it affects entire networks of people. This Father’s Day I’d like to bring attention to the pernicious consequences of parental incarceration and the exploitive ways in which private telecom companies profit from the separation of families.

Crime has been declining for decades, yet the number of children with a father in state or federal prison is now over 1.5 million. If we include jails, 1 out of every 28 children now has an incarcerated parent. And the latest estimates suggest that Black and Hispanic children are up to six times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than their white peers.

Graph showing number of minor children with a father in state or federal prison from 1991-2007. From 1991 to 2007 the number of minor children with a father in state or federal prison increased 77%. In a separate graph we detail the growing number of fathers in prisons.

Victims of a war waged – largely on poor communities of color – long before they were born, over-criminalization forces children to contend with a vast array of barriers that prevent upward economic mobility. Parental incarceration is associated with an increased risk of childhood poverty, health problems, school suspension and expulsion, and can be a source of stigma for children as they navigate the world around them. During a period when bipartisan support for reform appears to be in flux, it’s important to remember that young lives are at stake when we over-incarcerate.

And as if the forced separation of fathers from their loved ones wasn’t enough, telecom providers have found a way to benefit – and indeed profit – from parental incarceration. At a time when phone companies provide unlimited long distance calling for people like me and you, it can cost an incarcerated person and their family up to $24.95 for a single 15-minute in-state phone conversation. These exorbitant costs help explain why over $1.3 billion a year goes to the prison telephone industry.

A more recent development has been the growth of the video visitation industry; where local jails collude with private companies to charge up to $1.50/minute for low quality offsite video conferencing services (not including any additional fees that get tacked on for good measure). As jails across the country implement this technology they tend to scale back or eliminate in-person visits altogether, all the while receiving kick-backs from the private, for-profit telecom companies.

The exploitative practices of the prison communication industry – which penalize families for trying to stay in touch – amounts to a kind of regressive taxation. In this case, the profits come disproportionately from poor people already struggling with the absence of a loved one. From both a policy perspective, and from the perspective of families, replacing in-person visits with poorly functioning and expensive video visitation is unacceptable.

So on this Father’s Day, millions of children will be without their fathers, and without the ability to pay the outrageous fees associated with speaking to them. I hope that by the time Father’s Day comes around next year, state lawmakers take the initiative to better regulate prison telecom companies, and most importantly, reduce the number of incarcerated people.


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 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.


by Lucius Couloute, April 10, 2017

As our research has shown, local jails are increasingly replacing in-person visits with expensive and poorly implemented video visitation systems.

Fortunately, some policymakers are taking notice. Illinois State Rep. Carol Ammons introduced a bill earlier this year that would protect in-person visitation from being eliminated in Illinois correctional facilities and limit the cost of video visits. There is also active legislation in New Jersey that would guarantee face-to-face family visits for incarcerated individuals, cap video costs at 11 cents a minute, and ban fees on professional video visits from lawyers and clergy.

Policymakers across the country should consider adopting similar legislation so that incarcerated people and their families are not prevented from in-person contact during difficult times. Preserving face-to-face visitation is not just humane, it’s good policy because contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones is proven to reduce the likelihood that an individual will re-offend after release.

For more information on this issue and efforts to protect in-person visitation, see our report on the video visitation industry.


by Peter Wagner, February 8, 2017

On Monday, arguments were heard in a federal court case challenging the Federal Communications Commission’s regulations of the prison and jail telephone industry. A decision is not expected for several months, but there are a few updates to share nevertheless.

Centurylink, Global Tel*Link, Pay Tel, Securus Technologies, and Telmate sued the FCC when it started regulating the industry. Shortly thereafter, the Prison Policy Initiative joined with the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, and the Office of Communication, Inc. of the United Church of Christ as intervenors in support of the government respondents in the case, and we were all represented by the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center. By joining the case, we could help the FCC defend its orders, and ensure that the unique interests of the families and other stakeholders were represented in the case. The recent presidential election made our 2013 decision to intervene especially important.

The presidential election reshuffled the seats at the FCC. Ajit Pai, a commissioner since 2012 was made Chairman, and even though Pai had previously condemned the market failure caused by the corrupt commission system, he ultimately voted against the FCC’s regulations of the industry. And on January 31, the FCC told the Court that it was not going to defend two aspects of the regulations. Even as the FCC refused to support its own regulations, our attorney, Andrew Schwartzman, was able to defend the FCC’s work before the Court. We’re glad we intervened.

We don’t know what the Court is going to decide, and we don’t yet know how or whether Chairman Pai wants the FCC to address what he saw as “market failure” in the prison and jail telephone market.

All of this will become clearer over the next few months, but that leaves us with the immediate question of what families with loved ones behind bars can expect to pay. That too is complicated, in part because the Court stayed part of the FCC’s regulations.

Some states like Alabama have stricter regulations, and some prisons and jails have negotiated better deals for the families, but under the currently-enforceable federal rules:

  • For both prisons and jails, inter-state calls will continue to be capped at a maximum of $0.21-$0.25/minute for debit/prepaid or collect, respectively. (These are the rate caps that went into effect in February 2014. For now, in-state calls are not subject to rate caps.)

In addition, the abusive hidden fees for both inter-state and in-state calls, which our report Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry found can easily double the price of a call, are now capped at:

  • Payment by phone or website: $3 (previously up to $10)
  • Payment via live operator: $5.95 (previously up to $10)
  • Paper bills: $2 (previously up to $3.49)
  • Markups and hidden fees embedded within Western Union and MoneyGram payments: $0 (previously up to $6.95)
  • Markups and hidden profits on mandatory taxes and regulatory fees: $0 (We’ve seen these markups and hidden profits on “mandatory” taxes be 25% of the cost of the call)
  • All other ancillary fees: $0. (There are many of these charges. Some of the most egregious ones are $10 fees for refunds, $2.50/month for “network infrastructure” and a 4% charge for “validation”.)

Later, if we are successful in Court and nothing else happens:

  • In-state calls will be capped at $0.21-$0.25/minute, just like interstate calls. (This is particularly important because 92% of calls from prisons and jails are in-state, and because in the absence of regulation, jails are increasing the cost of these calls to up to an exploitative $1.50 a minute.
  • The companies will be prohibited from defying the FCC’s rate caps by steering families to abusive “single call” products like Text2Connect™ and PayNow™ that charge $9.99-$14.99 for a single call.

Stay tuned.


by Bernadette Rabuy, February 1, 2017

In a January 2015 report, we discovered that 74% of jails that adopt video visitation go on to ban in-person visits. Fortunately, the movement to protect in-person visits from video technology has continued to grow. Here are some recent developments we wanted to share:

  • New Jersey legislation, A4389, that would protect in-person jail visits and require that video visits cost no more than $0.11/minute unanimously passed the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.
  • An editorial from Maine’s Bangor Daily News called on Maine to follow Texas’ lead and ensure that jails maintain in-person visits, for the benefit of prisoners and their families, and, ultimately, the state.
  • Fifty-two organizations nationwide signed on to support the Video Visitation in Prisons Act introduced by Senator Tammy Duckworth. The Act would require the Federal Communications Commission to regulate video visits. It would also require that the Bureau of Prisons continue to provide in-person visits and only use video technology as a supplement to in-person visitation.

    Additionally, over 40,000 individuals have signed a Care2 petition in support of Senator Duckworth’s Video Visitation in Prisons Act. You can still sign.


by Aleks Kajstura, January 19, 2017

Two recent submissions to the FCC shed new light on the high cost of in-state phone calls from jails. While the campaign to make phone calls from prison and jail more affordable for family and friends of incarcerated people has made significant progress, the new filings underscore how private companies continue to avoid regulation while charging unconscionable rates.

These submissions present new research which reveals that some in-state calls cost over $1.50 a minute, and finds pricing structures that “bear a remarkable similarity” to practices prohibited by the FCC.

In order to “highlight the current ICS [Inmate Calling Service] landscape” for the FCC, Lee Petro, counsel for the Wright Petitioners, and the Prison Policy Initiative (thanks to members of our Young Professionals Network) conducted a survey of jails served by the major ICS providers.

The most significant discovery made from reviewing the current pricing policies of the ICS providers was that several ICS providers have imposed a rate structure for intrastate ICS calls that bear a remarkable similarity to the now-prohibited “connection fee” which was prohibited in the 2015 Second Report and Order, and memorialized in Section 64.6080 of the Commission’s rules.

These pricing schemes have resulted in 15 minute calls that would cost $24.95 from the Arkansas County Jail via Securus and $17.77 from the Douglas County jail in Oregon via Global Tel*Link.

You can find the summary of the Comments submission findings in the Ex-Parte submission, and the rates for all of the jails surveyed in exhibits B and C of the Comments submission (starting on page 82), and exhibits A and D in an updated filing reflecting Legacy’s correction of their advertised rates.


by Peter Wagner, December 8, 2016

It’s been a big week for the movement for telephone justice:


by Alison Walsh, April 19, 2016

Visits in Travis County, Texas, took on a special significance today. This morning marked the end of the county’s video-only visitation policy and the first time since 2013 that people incarcerated in the county’s jails were able to see their loved ones through a plexiglass window instead of a computer screen.

In 2013, Travis County phased out its in-person visitation program and adopted a video-only visitation policy. Jail administrators claimed that video was more efficient and conducive to more frequent visitation. Families reported a different experience, and the current psychological research confirms that video and in-person communication are far from equal.

The reversal in Travis County sets a new precedent. While almost three-fourths of the jails that adopt video visitation also ban in-person visits, the Travis County jails are now an example of how the technology can supplement in-person visits and improve communication options for families.

Congratulations to Grassroots Leadership, and to the formerly incarcerated people and their families whose advocacy brought about this change!


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