Posted by on February 24, 2015

Captive CustomerSome stories move me strongly enough to shake my head.  Then I remember all is well in the world; the challenges we face have a purpose that sometimes is known up front, sometimes revealed in hindsight, other times remains a mystery.  But the purpose is there.

I believe challenges I see in the world motivate me to make my world better than it already is.  Holding in my vision the world as I want to see it instead of the way things are, I am the change I want to see in the world.  It’s cool living from that perspective.

That’s why I founded Copiosis, but that’s another story.

When I read this piece about a friend’s son’s plight in jail, I felt compelled to amplify my friend’s post, not in order decry what is, but to illustrate how much better what is can be.

And we can do so much better.

The short story:  If you land in jail, you’ll likely want to exercise one of the most famous aspects of our justice system—your right to a “free” phone call.  Unfortunately, that call may be the most expensive call you’ll ever make, thanks to a Texas-based company called Securus and their very few competitors.  Unless you regularly patronize phone “dating” systems, sex lines and the like, $10–17 for a 15 minute phone call is outlandish.

Greedy.

I’m no longer a journalist and don’t have time to do in-depth reporting.  That said, I did look into why Securus has what appears to be a near monopoly on inmate communications (the infrastructure that allows people in jail to contact loved ones on the outside) and why it costs so much to stay in touch with loved ones.  What I discovered is the ALCU, among other organizations, is in fits over Securus, including its plans to increase their already substantial market share, then charge even more for their services.

Not only does Securus charge on average $15 for your “free” phone call in well over 40 US states, that call is billed collect.  So, in addition to the likelihood that, should you end up in the slammer, you’ll have to call a friend or family member in the middle of the night,  should they accept the call, they will end up paying the $15 collect charge.

Securus is a pretty damn successful company.  Not only has it locked up the inmate communication market, it also has locked up the visitation market, replacing traditional means of family visitation, allowing in-person visits, with virtual visitation. That means, instead of being able to see your incarcerated loved one in the flesh, either in person a few feet from them in some cases or through glass, you have to interact with them through something that looks like this:

Securus video terminal

In some cases, you’ll have to pay for the priviledge. Thankfully, where I live, the city council pressured the sheriff’s office to continue traditional glass visits in addition to the new electronic ones. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the rest of the country.

Not only is the ACLU moving against Securus’ efforts to earn even more income on the backs of the unfortunate, in 2012 it was reported that an “unlikely” coalition of organizations were fighting against Securus and other companies vying for profits in this market. The coalition included the NAACP, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and national conservative leaders, including American Values president Gary Bauer, the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, and Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals.  They haven’t been very successful. Those video things are popping up everywhere.

There’s a lot more to this story.  My point isn’t to drag you through all that. It is to inspire us all (including me) to believe in our innovation by contrasting what is happening right now with what will be possible when Copiosis is fully functioning where you live.  If you’re really interested in learning more about this issue, Street Roots, a great paper where I live, has a great story covering a lot of background that’s worth a read.

more recent story by Alaska reporter Andrew Wellner covers the topic from another angle.  Lots of quotes from inmates in this one.  It’s no surprise inmates find all this capitalist progress reprehensible.

Next time I’ll paint a better picture of how Copiosis would deal with Securus, the inmate communication market, and the justice system in general.

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