Prison Call

Disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color in America continues. The calls for prison reform include proposals to lower telephone rates for prisons throughout the United States. 

This would benefit African Americans and other communities of color who have family members currently incarcerated.

Companies that provide communications services to prisons and jails have long drawn criticism for charging high prices for phone calls and emails between inmates and their families and friends. I’ve previously written about one such company, Securus Technologies, which in January 2020 did something rarely seen in corporate America, acknowledging past failures and making specific commitments to do better.

What has the company done to deliver on its promises over the last year?

It brought in several outside advisors, including attorney and entrepreneur Yusef Jackson, who joined the executive team of Aventiv, Securus’ parent company, earlier this year.

Aventiv announced in April 2021 Jackson, the son of Rainbow/PUSH founder Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, would be helping with the lowering of the price of calls and other services for the incarcerated as Aventiv worked to change some of its business practices and respond to criticism of the industry.

The company also says they have renegotiated contracts with more than 100 correctional facilities to lower the cost of calls, and over 50% of their calls now cost less than $1. During the pandemic, they also provided free calls, emails, and video chats – more than 95 million in total.

Securus is now working on expanding the program across all its facilities but would require approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which currently only allows per-minute phone plans.

Securus has petitioned for a waiver that would exempt the pilot subscription plan from the FCC’s rulemaking on per-minute call requirements, allowing them to provide subscriptions in jails and prisons in all 50 states.

This could ultimately have a big impact; there are over 2 million incarcerated Americans in thousands of facilities across the country.

However, some prison reform advocates and critics have still questioned Securus’ intentions with the subscription.

Anything Securus does “is designed to … gouge the consumer and maximize their profits,” Human Rights Defense Center Executive Director Paul Wright said, according to Communications Daily.

Others have criticized the level of detail offered by Securus with Prison Policy Initiative General Counsel Stephen Raher, saying the company’s petition to the FCC “doesn’t suggest that Securus is serious about doing that.”

Dave Abel, Securus CEO, says the company has provided extensive detail to the FCC and argues any apprehensions about the program are misguided.

“We began this program as a response to specific requests we heard from family and friends of incarcerated Americans,” he said. “Now that we have the data showing us that this is something the community values, we believe that we have a duty to expand these services.”

While awaiting further instruction from the FCC, Abel said the company is continuing to look for other ways to help connect the incarcerated community to the outside world.

“Those who are incarcerated deserve affordable access to the life-changing technology that the rest of us enjoy,” he said. “Our goal is to put a tablet in the hands of every incarcerated individual we serve.”

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publisher Association.

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