Securus from what? A look at the company blocking FCC efforts to cap prison calls

© Lucy Nicholson
The Federal Communications Commission’s attempt to halt increasing prices of inmate phone calls has been blocked for a second time. A ruling from the US Court of Appeals granted a stay from Securus Technologies, a for-profit prison communication company.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) most recent attempt to cap the rates at $0.13 to $0.31 per minute for in-state calls was blocked by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Wednesday after granting a petition for a stay from Securus Technologies.

Relatives of inmates often rely on phone calls to stay in touch with their loved ones behind bars, often far from cities and with few opportunities to visit. Those calls are provided by private companies that profit from a demographic that largely has a limited income, but after a decision from the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, they may continue charging whatever they want.

The median income of male inmates prior to incarceration was found to be $19,650 and female inmates had a median income of $13,890 prior to incarceration, according to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing facts related to mass incarceration.

As Tom Miriam, of Global Tel*Link, a corrections phone company, explained to the Dallas County Commissioners in 2014: “This demographic doesn’t have high-speed internet and credit cards.

However, a lack of regulation or price caps allows companies like Securus, Global Tel*Link and others to charge whatever rates they and the counties in which they operate choose. As a result, the cost of a 15-minute conversation can cost over $15, according to the International Business Times.

The FCC has made numerous attempts to reign in the costs of these calls. In March, the agency attempted to cap rates at $0.11 to $0.22 a minute on both interstate and intrastate calls from prisons. That was blocked after Global Tel*Link and Securus filed a stay in the regulations, pending a lawsuit against the FCC.  

In my 16 years as a regulator, this is the clearest, most egregious case of market failure I have seen,” Mignon Clyburn, a federal regulator at the FCC, told the International Business Times.

That isn’t to say that the FCC has accomplished nothing in their battle. They did manage to implement a $0.21 per minute cap on interstate calls, according to Ars Technica. But the result has been an increase on intrastate calls. For example, last week Cuyahoga County, Ohio announced that inmates would be paying 42 percent more for phone calls under a new contract with Securus, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

The change in charges for inmates in Cuyahoga County means that the maximum 15-minute call will go from $2.77 to $3.95. That’s before the additional fees for using Securus come into play. Making a call through Securus requires making an account on their website. The type of account suggested by Securus is an AdvanceConnect that requires adding money into the account to make calls.

Paying for the privilege of communicating with the incarcerated includes steep processing fees. Per the Securus enrollment contract, the fee for paying through the web goes up to $7.95. For vision impaired users who rely on interactive voice response (IVR), that fee increases to $9.95.

The maximum amount of money allowed to be deposited into an account through Securus is $25. Due to the fees associated with depositing money, the most fiscally responsible move would be to deposit funds in $25 increments as needed to avoid paying more in processing fees.

Therefore, calling an inmate in Cuyahoga County from within Ohio, after the new price hikes are instituted, for two 15-minute calls a week means that the families and friends of inmates are paying at least $31.60 in calls alone before fees. But again, if families are trying to avoid fees without risking having their accounts blocked due to low funds, they’ll be putting $50 into their account with a possible $15.90 in extra fees for their first month of communication. 

There are cheaper alternatives. For example, Securus does not issue a processing fee for funds mailed directly to them in Dallas, Texas. But this then puts a serious time pressure on families in some parts of the country.

Phone services in Cass County Jail are provided by Securus. If a family or friend of a Cass County inmate lives in the area surrounding the North Dakota prison mail their money to Dallas first-class, that takes two to three days to reach the center. There is no mention of the turnaround on when the funds will be processed and added to the account.

If the funds run out during an in-person visit, then some facilities offer payment kiosks where visitors can pay $4.95 in fees for cash transactions and $7.95 for credit/debit.

Securus has gained a reputation for offering video calls on the condition that they eliminate face-to-face visitation. A contract they negotiated with Dallas County in 2014 stipulated: “For non-professional visitors, Customer [Dallas County] will eliminate all face-to-face visitation through glass or otherwise at the Facility and will utilize video visitation for all non-professional on-site visitors.

Dallas was not an oddity. In 2013, Travis County jails in Texas also ended in-person visitations in lieu of video-only visitation and did not reinstate them until 2016. Other jails that have contracts with Securus, such as Brunswick County Jail in North Carolina, have also banned face-to-face visitation.

In Cuyahoga County, a 15-minute video visit costs $9.95. According to a customer service agent on the Securus website, there is no program funding or discount for low-income families who wish to remain in communication with an inmate.

While families may be growing frustrated with the increasing expenses, there is little incentive for local governments to intervene on their behalf. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Cuyahoga County is guaranteed to make $3 million a year for the first two years and receive $1 million in commission after that, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

That is a drop in the bucket for Securus Technologies, which claimed to have made $531 million in gross revenue in 2015, according to the International Business Times.

Attempts to contact Securus for comment were disconnected after calling their customer service line and requesting to speak with a media relations representatives. Additional calls were also disconnected after being told that all information could be found on their website.

In June, the CEO of Securus Technologies, Rick Smith, told the IBT that the increasing rates for intrastate calls were the FCC’s fault for not banning commission payments to sheriffs and prison officials, saying “the lower rates that were highly publicized never went into effect because the FCC failed to do their job and tried to set rates below our cost. There are no rate caps on intrastate and local calls, only on interstate calls. I understand that inmates and families are upset that rates didn’t decrease, it’s the FCC’s fault.

Commissions, or as some call them kickbacks, are big deals for many states. Prison Phone Justice found that these kickbacks range from $85,438.58 in Alaska to $12,946,806.00 in Illinois.

Requests for comment or connection to a media spokesperson were met with calls also being disconnected. On the third attempt, contact information was given to Securus, but they have yet to comment on the ruling. Several states, such as California and New York, have ended commissions.

Federal prisons do not accept kickbacks, either. In 2014, the FCC ordered the Department of Corrections to stop accepting a 35 percent commission payment from Securus, Prison Legal News reported. However, that did not stop Securus from collecting an additional 35 percent fee from prisoners.

None of the states that banned kickbacks charge more than $3.00 per 15-minute phone call.

The minute rates are not the only way that Securus makes money off of inmates. Anyone who calls an inmate is alerted that their call may be monitored or recorded in what is known as a waiver of rights. But Securus was accused of taking it a step further in 2015.

One product that Securus offers is called Threads and they claim that it is “one of the most powerful tools in the intelligence community.” Indeed, it offers many tools such as the ability to “Detect patterns of fraternization between inmates and correctional officers, nursing, and/or commissary staff” and “Discover common contacts between inmates and called parties” and “Customize information and reporting to filter out irrelevant calls, such as girlfriends or legal counsel.”

What caught many off guard was when in 2015, the Intercept received 70 million prisoner phone call records – including ones between attorneys and their clients.

The volume of calls stored, despite being a violation of attorney-client privilege, was shocking, particularly because some went back to December 2011. The Intercept was able to identify some 14,000 recorded conversations between inmates and their attorneys and noted that “the vast majority of the calls appear to be personal in nature.” So much for being about to filter out “irrelevant calls.”

The American Civil Liberties Union was appalled by the discovery, explaining that the standard waiver of rights applies to situations directly related to the concerns of prison officials. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, explained to the Intercept that the waiver of rights can apply to criminal operations inside or outside the facility, but “it doesn’t mean that the prisoner and the … outside person they’re talking to has forever waived all privacy rights and that any conceivable use of that recording is OK.

Securus responded to the Intercept and claimed that the records had not been the result of a breach in their system, but rather “evidence suggests that an individual or individuals with authorized access to a limited set of records may have used that access to inappropriately share those records.”

They also denied knowingly recording conversations with attorneys, saying, “Attorneys are able to register their numbers to exempt them from the recording that is standard for other inmate calls.

One of the conversations recorded was from one Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the New England Patriots who is now in an ongoing first-degree murder trial. Hernandez's defense team claims that his jailhouse calls were tapped, and they were never notified of the security breach.

At the time of the 2014 breach, Hernandez had recently been transferred to the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston. The breach was confirmed last week by Suffolk Sheriff’s Department spokesman Peter Van Delft, who said in a statement: “During a routine security check, our Sheriff’s Investigative Division discovered that Securus’ telephone database had been accessed for calls relating to detainee Hernandez.

Van Delft did not comment on the source of the breach, but said: “The Department then initiated discussions with Securus officials about improving security.”