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Profiting from Prisoners: Charging For Video Calls While Ending Visitation Rights

Submitted by Mike Krieger via Liberty Blitzkrieg blog,

Not coincidentally, free on-site video visits are offered at the jail only three days each week. Remote visits — those visitors pay for — are more frequent. Clearly, Securus’ interest lies in encouraging visitors to use the remote system, and the county stands to gain, too. When Hopkins County signed its deal with Securus in 2012 the company agreed to give the county a 70 percent cut of its profits from video and phone calls.

 

Hopkins County is one of five Texas counties that adopted Securus’ video visitation and eliminated in-person, face-to-face visits afterward.

 

In September, the Dallas County Commissioners Court nearly approved a contract of its own with Securus that would have explicitly eliminated all in-person visits at the Lew Sterrett Jail in favor of video visitation.

 

– From the Dallas Observer article: Captive Audience: Counties and Private Businesses Cash in on Video Visits at Jails

At first glance, it seems like a reasonable enough plan. Private companies offer to install technology in prisons free of charge that allows inmates to make video phone calls to their friends and family on the outside. Make the video calls free when visitors come to the prison itself, but make that process as inconvenient as possible. Then eliminate in person visitation rights.

At that point, even if you travel to the prison itself, the best you can get is a video call with the inmate, the same thing you can do from the comfort and convenience of your own home. Then tack on a hefty fee for remote video calls. Presto! You’ve created a captive market to financially feed off of. It’s like taking candy from a baby.

I recently came across several articles highlighting this growing trend, and the two main companies, Securus and  Global Tel*Link, that dominate this $1.2 billion “market,” if you can actually call it that. To make matters worse, the companies have also been caught illegally violating the attorney-client privilege by recording such phone calls, and employing cutthroat tactics to destroy any cheaper competition that emerges.

The first article comes from the Dallas Observer. Here are some excerpts:

The jail telephones are operated by Securus, a Dallas-based corporation that is a major player on the tech side of the for-profit prison industry. The company is popular with county and state governments for its ability to raise money through jail phone calls. It’s not popular with the people who actually take the calls, the families and friends of inmates, who find their bank accounts taking hits from a system that is expensive and confusing to use.

 

There is another option that’s free. She can visit the jail where she can actually see the face of Donald Ballowe, her ex-fiance. But as Leisey discovered shortly after his arrest in August, those visits too have moved into the hands of Securus. To speak to Ballowe without paying Securus, she has to drive to the jail a full 24 hours in advance to schedule a visit the following day. The next day, she has a “visit” inside the jail visitation room, not exactly with Ballowe, but with a computer screen. When her ex-fiance’s face appears on screen, he is still sitting in his crowded cell, sometimes as other inmates walk past him on the way to shower.

 

It’s less like the stereotypical jail visit you see on a TV cop drama, with visitor and inmate separated across a table or by a sheet of glass, and more like a Skype chat, complete with annoying a two- or three-second stuttering lags in the video, Leisey says. And sometimes the sound is muddled by a strange echo that cuts into the visit. “You only get 25 minutes, so if half the time you’re trying to repeat yourself, it’s not like you’re getting the whole 25 minutes anymore.”

 

If she owned a computer, she could go for the pricier but easier option and “visit” Ballowe by video from the comfort of her own home. But unlike Skype — whose video and phone services range from free to cheap — Securus’ regular rate for a video chat to Hopkins County’s jail is pricey. Leisey, a single mother, is unemployed and can’t afford even the phone service. “I haven’t been able to talk to him in a couple of weeks,” she says.

In a world where I can get on Skype and talk to anyone, anywhere in the world for free, the fact that Securus gets away with this is simply obnoxious.

Not coincidentally, free on-site video visits are offered at the jail only three days each week. Remote visits — those visitors pay for — are more frequent. Clearly, Securus’ interest lies in encouraging visitors to use the remote system, and the county stands to gain, too. When Hopkins County signed its deal with Securus in 2012 the company agreed to give the county a 70 percent cut of its profits from video and phone calls. Securus anticipated the county would make $455,597 over five years. Instead, though, in the 2014 fiscal year Hopkins County has earned only $35,659.

 

Hopkins County is one of five Texas counties that adopted Securus’ video visitation and eliminated in-person, face-to-face visits afterward. Soon, Securus will bring its video chats to Dallas County. County commissioners here promise that in-person, non-video visits won’t be eliminated, but what will happen next is anyone’s guess.

 

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency that creates guidelines for county and city jails, says that jails must offer inmates two free, 20-minute visits each week. If video visitation was just an option, researchers say, it would be an excellent tool to help inmates. Instead, video companies are exploiting a loophole in the rules and replacing the mandated two visits in the jails with free on-site video visits, operating on the theory, presumably, that meeting by video is equivalent to looking someone in the face, even if it is through glass in a crowded jail visiting room.

 

In September, the Dallas County Commissioners Court nearly approved a contract of its own with Securus that would have explicitly eliminated all in-person visits at the Lew Sterrett Jail in favor of video visitation. Judge Jenkins, who strongly opposes the practice of counties profiting from inmate fees, discovered the clause and alerted prisoners’ advocates, says Josh Gravens, a Dallas activist at Texas CURE, a prison watchdog group. Jenkins, with the help of activists, former inmates and their families who spoke out at the September meeting, persuaded commissioners to reject the initial contract. “We think in-person visitation is extremely important,” Jenkins said, speaking on behalf of himself and Gravens. “We think it’s wrong to make commissions, above cost [to] recoup, on families.”

 

Yet in a written statement to the county, Securus says cutbacks to Dallas’ current visitation policy will be necessary since the company is installing the kiosks at its own expense. “The capital required upfront is significant and without a migration from current processes to remote visitation, the cost cannot be recouped …” Securus wrote.

Sorry, but this is straight up evil. Securus knows exactly what its doing by writing this language into its contracts. It’s highly unethical.

Securus and its competitor Global Tel *Link have been buying out smaller companies and gaining control of the jail and prison telephone market since the early 2000s, but it took until 2013 for the FCC to finally act on complaints that the companies were ripping off families with excessive phone rates.

 

The market is estimated by Bloomberg News to be worth $1.2 billion, with about half of the correctional phone services contracts belonging to Alabama-based Global Tel*Link. Number two is Securus, with 30 percent of the market. Both are backed by investment banks–Global Tel*Link is funded by American Securities and Securus by Abry partners.

 

Families’ attempts to get around the high phone rates have spawned a new industry of services offering cheap jail calls, such as Cons Call Home. The rates for long-distance calls from prisons are substantially higher than local calls, so the services work by rerouting phone numbers that come in from Securus or one of its competitors to a cheaper line. Predictably, Securus has tried to put those companies out of business. When Securus has discovered that its number is being rerouted for cheaper rates, the company has responded by simply blocking the inmate’s account and cutting off the funds.

 

“Today I was told by Securus Technologies that I am masking my true identity and phone number and this is illegal,” a woman wrote to the FCC in 2012 after she purchased a Google Voice number to match the area code of where her husband was incarcerated. “I was told that I can face federal charges and so can my husband … I need to know if I am truly doing something illegal.”

 

She wasn’t. Securus asked the FCC to crack down on the third-party calls in a 2009 petition but in 2013 the FCC issued an opinion that Securus and Global Tel *Link had no right to block the calls.

 

Carolyn Esparza, a former social worker who founded Community Solutions, an El Paso nonprofit that provides social services to inmates and their families, says most people don’t have the heart to say no to an expensive call from an inmate. “It is addictive for the prisoner to be able to call home, to be able to call home, to be able to call home again,” she says.

 

Paul Walcutt, an Austin criminal defense lawyer, knew that Securus was recording the calls of his clients, and was more or less OK with it. Inmates are warned frequently that their calls are subject to recording. Sometimes, Walcutt says, the recordings have been presented in court and have hurt his cases, while other times they’ve helped. But his own conversations, he’d been assured by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, were safely off-record to protect attorney-client privilege. After hearing rumors to the opposite, Walcutt asked the prosecutor’s office for a DVD of a client’s recorded calls. To Walcutt’s surprise, the first clip he played from the DVD was none other than a recording of a phone call between himself and the client.

 

Walcutt told the prosecutor, who he says assured him that they stop listening to the calls when they hear that it’s an attorney on the other end. “I think probably, the majority of prosecutors are ethical enough to not listen to that,” Walcutt agrees. “But can I be sure? No, I can’t.”

Of course you can’t be sure. Let’s not forget yesterday’s article: Innocent Army Veteran Framed by Louisiana Police and Prosectors Barely Escapes Jail Due to Cellphone Video.

Travis County doesn’t just use Securus’ phones. In May 2013, the local jails finished their transition to video visitation as Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton eliminated in-person visits.

 

Defending his county’s switch to video visitation, Cook points to the expensive phone system that Shawnee County jails use, which is also run by Securus. “If you look at the rates they charge for the telephone, the calls are outrageous, absolutely outrageous,” he says. “If I had the option to pay a lesser amount than I was paying for the telephone, by video, I would pay that in a heartbeat.”

Perhaps the problem is with Securus. This isn’t rocket science.

We learn more from a recent Mother Jones article:

On a chilly Sunday evening in December, a smattering of parents and small children trickled into a graffiti-covered concrete building on the grounds of the DC Jail. It was the last day to visit with prisoners before Christmas Eve, and some of the visitors were wearing Santa hats or bearing presents. The only thing missing was inmates. Three years ago, Washington, DC, eliminated in-person visitation for the roughly 1,800 residents of its jails and installed 54 video-conferencing screens in this building across the parking lot from the detention facility. The screens were installed, at no expense to taxpayers, by a Virginia-based company called Global Tel*Link (GTL), which had scored a lucrative contract for the facility’s phone service.

 

Now the only way families in the capital can see their loved ones in jail—many of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime and will be shipped out of state if they are—is to sit in front of a webcam for 45 minutes. (Two free weekly visits are allotted.) The video on the laptop-size screens often lags, creating an echo effect. It’s a cold, impersonal way to speak with someone a few hundred feet away. The effect, the Washington Post editorial board charged, has been “to punish prisoners and families.”

Yet video visitation is increasingly popular with correctional administrators lured by promises of lower costs, more revenue, and safer facilities. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), more than 75 counties and municipalities have replaced face-to-face jailhouse visits with video systems installed by industry giants like GTL and Securus, which are eager to squeeze money out of prisoners.

 

Take the deal Securus just inked with Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, to provide video visitation at six facilities and online. A 20-minute online video chat with a Maricopa County inmate costs $5. That’s the promotional rate; it then goes up to $12.95. The company is covering the $2.3 million cost of installing the on-site video in return for receiving all the profits from remote visitation until it hits 8,000 monthly paid visits—or roughly one per inmate. After that, the sheriff’s office will take a cut of the fees—another big selling point for cash-strapped cities and counties. Jails usually get somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of the profits from remote video visits after hitting certain traffic benchmarks.

 

With video visitation in place, it’s easy for jails to cut back on traditional visitation. When Dallas tried to introduce video visitation last year, it assured residents that face-to-face interactions weren’t going away. Its contract with Securus, however, called for just that—and sure enough, the county’s jails soon curtailed in-person visits. In a letter to county officials, Securus acknowledged that to make up for the cost of free on-site video visits, it had to steer visitors toward remote visits, which can cost up to $1 per minute.

 

Making money off captive consumers is nothing new. Until recently, many of the same companies now installing videoconferencing setups reaped huge windfalls by charging prisoners and their families more than a dollar a minute to talk on the phone. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission intervened and set an interim rate of 21 cents per minute for prepaid interstate phone calls from prisons.

 

“Video has become a bigger and bigger deal in part to help replace some of the telephone revenue that’s been lost,” says Carrie Wilkinson, prison phone justice director at the Human Rights Defense Center.

 

And if jails aren’t sold on the financial windfalls of video visitation, there’s also the surveillance angle. The new video systems record and monitor both inmates and their visitors. Securus says that remote visitations “create new investigative opportunities”; a company called Guarded Exchange has partnered with Securus to offer “behavior analysis” of video chats. Another company, TurnKey, boasts that corrections officers can receive real-time notifications when inmates use its program; guards can even watch and listen in on visits from a smartphone. And its archived videos are “fully admissible in court.” What’s being billed as a curb against recidivism could also keep the jails full.

It would be one thing if these companies were merely providing an additional service. In contrast, they are writing into the contracts with the prisons that in person visitation must be eliminated. It’s a another heinous example of the cronyism that has come to dominate the U.S. economy in recent years.