Phones archives

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.


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 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 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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Events

  • May 15, 2018:
    Our Policy Analyst Lucius Couloute will be at the LEDA Summit on Race and Inclusion in Holland, Michigan, presenting his research on the challenges and disadvantages people face when they are released from prison. Tickets are available on LEDA’s website.

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