Time to Lower Telephone Rates to Call Prisoners in America
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., President and CEO, National Newspaper Publisher Publishers Association
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.
So, what has the company done over the last year to deliver on its promises?
They’ve brought in a number of outside advisors, including attorney and entrepreneur Yusef Jackson, who earlier this year joined the executive team of Aventiv, Securus’ parent company. Aventiv announced in April 2021 that Jackson, the son of Rainbow/PUSH founder The Reverend 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.
According to Aventiv CEO Dave Abel, the next big step in their effort to lower costs is expanding a program that lets friends and family of the incarcerated subscribe to a monthly call package that charges a flat rate as an alternative to paying by the minute for talk time. Securus announced a pilot program last year, which has since expanded to nine facilities across the U.S.
Across nine of the prison facilities, more than one third of calls have been made under the subscription plan, and the plan has reduced the per-minute cost of calls by over 50 percent, according to data shared by Securus. The company’s data also showed that under the subscription plan, users utilized 75 percent of the maximum call time afforded by facilities, reflecting a rise of 15 percent compared to per-minute calls.
And in an initial customer survey, 80 percent of subscribers said they felt the service was easier to use, and 70 percent would recommend a subscription plan to family and friends.
Securus is now working to expand 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.
“Now that we have seen the positive impact of these subscription plans, we know we need to make them available to as many people as possible,” said Abel. “We’re in the process of working with the FCC to modernize the regulation to allow for this type of cost saving program, while ensuring there are still strong consumer protections in place.”
Some prison reform advocates and critics, however, 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 that the company’s petition to the FCC “doesn’t suggest that Securus is serious about doing that.”
Abel, however, says the company has provided extensive detail to the FCC, and argues that 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.”
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and Executive Producer/Host of The Chavis Chronicles (TCC) on PBS TV Stations across the nation and can be reached at email@example.com.