The stories of families who struggle to pay exorbitant call rates to communicate with incarcerated loved ones are heartbreaking and endless.
Kellie Pearson, whose fiancé, Michael Ray, was held in a Massachusetts jail, spent $2,000 on phone calls with Ray over the nearly two years he was incarcerated. Although she desperately wanted to stay in close touch with him, she asked him to call less frequently as the calls became a financial burden for the family. With his despair exacerbated by communication challenges, tragically, Ray died by suicide while awaiting trial.
It was Securus Technologies, a Dallas-based correctional telecom company, that preyed on Ray and Pearson. Annually, Securus extracts over $625 million from 1.2 million incarcerated people and their communities by charging extortionate prices for their products and services. The company charges as much as $25 for a 15-minute phone call, $26 for a 40-minute video call, and $3.95 for a five-second voicemail.
With an unchecked acquisition strategy, over the past few years, Securus has been aggressively expanding its exploitative practices into new geographic markets and further narrowing competition in the correctional telecom market.
That’s what makes the defeat of Securus’ attempted acquisition of ICSolutions, the company’s last major competitor outside of its duopoly with Global Tel Link, earlier this month a victory for prison phone justice. Had Securus successfully acquired ICS, directly impacted communities would have suffered dramatically.
While all correctional telecom companies charge egregious rates, Securus’ rates are markedly higher overall than the rates charged by ICS. A recent survey published by the Prison Policy Initiative revealed that not only is Securus’ average call rate double that of ICS’ ($7.62 vs. $3.04 for a 15-minute call), but its max rate is also four times that of ICS ($24.82 vs. $6.00 for a 15-minute call).
Securus’ excessive rates are fueled by an intentional and rapacious growth strategy.
Take the Massachusetts correctional telecom market for example. In Hampden County, which contracts with ICS, a 15-minute call from jail runs $1.80. Just a few miles west in Berkshire County, which contracts with Securus, that same call is a staggering $6.00, or three times as much. And the price differential cannot be explained by county commissions as one might expect: Hampden County takes an 85 percent kickback with a minimum guarantee while Berkshire County takes 45 percent.
Moreover, in charging these rates, Securus has brazenly flouted Massachusetts’ rate caps on telephone calls from prisons and jails, claiming exemption because it uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP) rather than the traditional technology used by its competitors.
In fact, after the company asserted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it is effectively regulated by states, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy joined criminal justice advocates in opposing its acquisition of ICS, citing Securus’ efforts to avoid state regulation.
Still, the greater irony is that Securus markets its VoIP service as a lower-cost communications solution.
Considering Securus’ past behavior, it’s clear that had the Securus-ICS merger been approved, the result would have been disastrous for Massachusetts’ directly impacted communities and many others around the country. In the short term, facilities served by ICS would have likely seen their call rates increase and, in the long term, facilities across the country would have had even fewer pricing options to choose from.
The lack of transparency into private corporations and their dealings makes the fight against the commodification of incarcerated people difficult. Most mergers in the correctional space occur without much fanfare or press. That the Securus-ICS deal required FCC approval was critical in giving prison phone justice activists notice of the deal and the opportunity to challenge it before it became a fait accompli.
Thankfully, in the end, the FCC agreed with our objections.
On April 2, citing the “arguments and evidence submitted by criminal justice advocates,” the FCC concluded that this merger was not in the public interest. In response, Securus and ICS withdrew their merger application and abandoned the deal.
A behemoth in the correctional telecom industry was vanquished thanks to the ardent work of prison phone justice advocates, protecting directly impacted communities from heightened exploitation. While a small win in the greater war against the commercialization of our criminal legal system, it’s impossible to overstate the impact that the Securus-ICS merger would have had on incarcerated people and their support systems.
Something as simple and reassuring as a phone call with a loved one should not become complicated and taxing simply because the person calling is in a federal or state prison or local jail. We will continue to fight against the predatory correctional telecom companies that have exploited the isolation of incarcerated people and monetized the natural need for human connection.
Bianca Tylek is founder and director of Worth Rises, formerly the Corrections Accountability Project, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to ending the exploitation of people touched by the criminal legal system. She welcomes comments from readers.