Prison Telecom Monopolies 'Evolve,' Now Rip Off Inmate Families With Shoddy Video Services, Too

from the truly-captive-markets dept

We've noted a few times how interstate inmate calling service (ICS) companies have a disturbingly cozy relationship with government, striking (technically buying) monopoly deals that let them charge inmate families $14 per minute. Worse, some ICS companies like Securus Technologies have been under fire for helping the government spy on privileged inmate attorney communications, information that was only revealed after Securus was hacked late last year. Given the apathy for prison inmates and their families ("Iff'n ya don't like high prices, don't go to prison son!") reform on this front has been glacial at best.

As such, ripping off inmate families and delivering sub-par services continues unabated. As many prisons eliminate personal visits, these ICS firms have expanded revenues by pretending to offer next-generation teleconferencing services. But while slightly more economical ($10 for 20 minutes), apparently companies like Securus with no competitors, a captive audience, and no repercussions for sloppy technology haven't quite figured out how to make this whole video chat thing work yet. As a result, inmates who use the services say their experiences are repeatedly abysmal:
"Johnson logged into the Securus Technologies website — a Skype-like communication system used by the Travis County jail — on her PC laptop. But the video player didn't have the latest version of Java. When Johnson installed it, the system insisted she had not. So Johnson tried another laptop — a MacBook this time. Java was working this time, Flash was not.

Thinking the browser might be the problem, Johnson tried launching the video player in Chrome, then switched to Safari before giving up and using the Securus Android app on her phone.

Finally, Coleman's face appeared on screen — barely. For the entire call, a glitch in the system caused Coleman's image to look like a tangle of window blinds. Johnson wanted to talk to Coleman about her case, but through most of the call, she simply repeated, "Hello — can you hear me now?" Johnson was charged $10 for the video visit, even after cutting it a few minutes short of the 20-minute maximum."
In short, Securus is the Comcast of the industrial incarceration sector, and as a result customer support and service is about what you'd expect. 600 prisons in 46 states now have video visitation, and more prisons are doing away with in site visitations monthly, creating yet more revenue opportunities for ICS outfits. Reformers have been arguing that cutting off in-person visitation increases on-site violence by frustrated inmates, and hindering an inmate's ability to maintain outside connections (kind of hard when your wife and child look like pixelated Godzilla) increases the risk of repeat incarceration:
"County officials across the country claim video visitation is good for security. When Renaud got ahold of prison records, they showed that incidences of inmate-on-inmate violence, disciplinary infractions and possession of contraband all rose after Travis County did away with in-person visitation. Because visitation is so new, these statistics are the earliest indication that the pro-security pitch for video visitation is all snake oil.

The past decade in research shows consistently (pdf) that maintaining the relationships the incarcerated will inevitably return to for support once they're released is a powerful agent in keeping them from repeat offenses. One study of over 16,000 incarcerated people found that any visitation at all, even just once, reduced the risk of recidivism by 13% for felony reconvictions."
The problem is that the dysfunction of prison telecom goes bone deep, and reform efforts remain superficial at best. After decades of inaction, the FCC recently tried to impose new price caps of twenty-two cents per minute on ICS companies, but those rules are on hold thanks to a lawsuit from prison telecom operators like Securus that claim prisons face riots if companies can't keep charging consistent rates.

But the core problem remains that such companies get to pay "concession fees" or "site commissions" (read: kickbacks) to prisons for monopoly control over prison inmate communications services. Prisons are paid $460 million annually in such concession fees, and Los Angeles makes $15 million annually off of such fees alone. Obviously that kind of cash quickly kills any attempt at real reform, so not unlike the outside world, prison telecom services remain an ouroboros of profitable dysfunction; a government-sanctioned monopoly with very real human costs, one nobody in the supply chain wants to even examine, much less actually fix.

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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 May 2016 @ 12:21pm

    Prisoners, paychecks, same thing right?

    Reformers have been arguing that cutting off in-person visitation increases on-site violence by frustrated inmates, and hindering an inmate's ability to maintain outside connections (kind of hard when your wife and child look like pixelated Godzilla) increases the risk of repeat incarceration:

    Which is considered a feature, not a bug if you happen to be one of those with a financial incentive to want as many people in jail as possible for as long as possible.

    If you're a sociopath that's only making money when other people are locked up then you want them to be locked up as much as possible, because otherwise you won't make as much, and your profits are more important than their freedom. As such doing away with personal visits in favor of crappy video 'visits' is a win-win for people like that, they not only get to gouge people now, they also increase the odds that they'll be able to gouge them again in the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 12 May 2016 @ 12:50pm

      Re: Prisoners, paychecks, same thing right?

      The really sad part is that these fees are primarily paid for not by the prisoners, but by their families and loved ones, and those families often have the choice between bankrupting themselves or cutting off communication to their loved ones.

      And because those kickbacks go into state and local revenue streams, really all this does is shift the tax burden onto the families of prisoners. If the tax burden was on society, there would be at least some financial incentive to try to fix the disaster that is our criminal justice system. But the rich want and get their tax breaks, while the poor and vulnerable are being stolen from with the support of government.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Karl Bode (profile), 12 May 2016 @ 2:05pm

        Re: Re: Prisoners, paychecks, same thing right?

        "The really sad part is that these fees are primarily paid for not by the prisoners, but by their families and loved ones, and those families often have the choice between bankrupting themselves or cutting off communication to their loved ones."

        Silly, that's where the predatory payday loan system comes in and "helps!"

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 2:43pm

      Re: Prisoners, paychecks, same thing right?

      Funny how we've engineered a culture in which the sociopaths are running the prisons rather than being locked inside them. Of course, sociopaths also run the government that writes the laws that 'bad people' break... and they run the corporations that make money from every direction.

      Can someone explain to me why shit, as yet, is not being burned to the fucking ground? (Other than the fact that the only people who ever do something of this nature to make it into the news are racist yahoos that actually make the government yahoos look good. Oh, wait, now I get the whole 'corporate press and public opinion' thing.)


      Disclaimer - the preceding was a random abstract question of a metaphysical nature, and not in any way incitement for anyone to do anything other than enjoy a scone and watch kittens play with balls of yarn.

      Disclaimer The Second - I'm not *really* a ranting loon. Sometimes it's fun to play, though.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 12 May 2016 @ 2:56pm

        "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

        1. They're bad people, they're lucky they get what scraps we as a society are gracious enough to throw to them.

        2. The system would never throw someone into the legal meatgrinder unless they were guilty, so if they're in jail they had to have done something to deserve it.

        Pretty much the above, most people don't even consider that maybe, just maybe the system has been corrupted horribly, so if bad things happen to people clearly it can only be because they deserve it, and could never be because the system cares more about bodies in cells and convictions on the record than seeing actual justice done.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 12 May 2016 @ 4:20pm

          Re: "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

          I would also add that we as a culture have changed the purpose of prison. Rather than being a tool to help reduce the crime rate and keep everyone safer, we've apparently decided that it should be little more than an instrument of vengeance.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            That One Guy (profile), 12 May 2016 @ 4:32pm

            Re: Re: "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

            Very much so, yes. Prison isn't seen in most countries as a place of reform but revenge, a place to 'Make them pay'.

            That this does absolutely nothing to stop someone from breaking the law again once they get out, and in fact often increases the odds of such happening isn't even considered, all that matters is making the prisoners suffer as much or more than their victims(assuming there was any for a given crime), and to even suggest otherwise will almost always result in derogatory claims about how the one talking is 'Soft on criminals' or 'Cares more about the crooks than their victims'.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 9:16pm

              Re: Re: Re: "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

              it is also a cheap source of slave labour for the military complex.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 4:56pm

            Re: Re: "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

            That revenge isn't even necessarily visited on most people as payback for the crime they've been imprisoned for. It's retribution for having the wrong ideology, the wrong traditions, the wrong thoughts and attitudes. The more wrong-thinkers that are put in prison, the more proof there is that wrong-thinkers are inherently criminals, pure evil, who need to be punished for what they certainly would do to the rest of us if given the chance. The best solution is to put 'em in prison for anything, no matter how small. Safer that way.

            (It's oddly fun playing with simple stochastic simulations of the justice system, and tossing 'insignificant' quirks of human behavior into the mix as variables.)

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 4:30pm

          Re: "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

          And this leads to all sorts of existential questions. I'll only ask one:

          How long would I have to spend in Irony Hell if I thought that it would be fun to sit back and watch the system destroy everybody, since "every single one of you probably contributed to the mess, so all of you must deserve it"?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 4:07pm

            Re: Re: "That would never happen to /me/, I'm innocent, but they had it coming."

            To expand on this thought..Americans are all prisoners of their own delusion of greatness and power, when in fact the average individual is powerless against a system of crony capitalism, where freedom is measured by consumer product choices.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 9:17pm

        Re: Re: Prisoners, paychecks, same thing right?

        The bread and circuses have yet to run out

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 9:30pm

      Re: Prisoners, paychecks, same thing right?

      "If you're a sociopath that's only making money when other people are locked up then you want them to be locked up as much as possible, because otherwise you won't make as much, and your profits are more important than their freedom. "

      Thank you for making the distinction between sociopaths. Because the money hungry wall street exec wannabe kind of sociopaths or nothing like the honest sociopaths.

      Most of us don't care for people but at the same time we don't want to hurt anyone in anyway. So these kind of people are the worst!

      By the way, check your state for any contracts with private prisons. More than not you will find that they have clause like guarantied fill rate of 90%.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 2:36pm

    good ol' US of A. the home of how to screw people over with the blessings of the government!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 9:13pm

    Considering how prosecutors keep getting caught faking evidence to get high numbers of people convicted than actual guilt of a crime, it is fairly easy to have sympathy for people in prison.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 May 2016 @ 9:49pm

    Recent Experience

    I have a son who was recently incarcerated in a Nevada county jail (not convicted, simply charged). Everything mentioned in this article is dead-on. It's a complete captive audience mentality and the monopoly attitude prevails. The website to pay, etc. is beyond abysmal and when I called the help desk simply to try to determine the actual cost per minute for a voice call they could not tell me. They had endless excuses about different taxes and fees, etc. It was simply disgusting. I felt completely abused by the whole process. It's a really sad state of affairs when our local govs uses these companies to rip people off during their hardest of times. It reminds me of the other industry that smells so similar - the mortuary biz. May they all rot in Hell.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ryuugami, 13 May 2016 @ 6:18am

    It's a complete captive audience mentality

    Mentality doesn't enter into it when your audience is literally captive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 11:29am

    Execute them all. If they are ever released they won't have the same rights as citizens and will not have access to gainful living wage employment. Be merciful and do the right thing, for them and society.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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