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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

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Prison phone industry creates monopoly, exploits prisoners


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Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, has spearheaded a litany of regulation rollbacks concerning the media industry and internet initiatives. It often goes unnoticed that the FCC has jurisdiction over a substantial part of the prison industry.

In June, the District Court of Appeals in D.C. struck down the ability of the FCC to put caps on intrastate call rates in the correctional services industry, often reflected by the price of phone calls paid by inmates and their families within a state’s borders.

The success of invalidating the regulatory body’s authority was most likely due to the fact that the FCC legal team tasked with defending the provision dropped their legal defense regarding the subject. The FCC’s decision to drop the defense came a little more than a week after Pai was appointed as chairman by President Donald Trump.

The prison phone industry has been out of control for years now. Prison technology companies vie for long-term telecommunication contracts from prisons, and in the process, a site commission is determined. The companies provide the correctional facility a portion of the revenues, which can range from 20 to 63 percent, and in some cases up to 84 percent.

These are generally monopoly contracts that create a captive clientele with no ability to choose from a number of providers. The argument that monopoly contracts promote a free-market approach to the prison industry is a weak one.

It also should be noted that Pai, while a partner at the law firm Jenner and Block and before becoming a FCC commissioner, represented Securus, which is the second-largest prison telephone company. It’s also one of the five companies that filed the countersuit that led to the termination of the FCC’s authority to limit in-state cap rates.

Pai will now be the one who determines whether to approve the recent, proposed acquisition of Securus by Platinum Equity.

These concerns apply to more fields than just the prison industry. For instance, the Harris County Jail uses Securus as its calling provider for contacting inmates. Most inmates in jail, persons who have not been convicted of any crime despite being charged with one, face exorbitant rates for phone calls.

In the eyes of the court, defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but that is of little concern for private companies taxing inmates for every minute of calls to families or legal counsel.

It has been noted that the ability to reach outside of prison walls to communicate with others helps reduce the rate of recidivism among inmates. Not only does this reduce the costs incurred by processing and detaining a person who commits a crime in the future, it opens up a dialogue between incarcerated parents and their children.

The children of incarcerated parents already run a higher risk of internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems, and keeping in contact with incarcerated parents can reduce child depression and the engagement of antisocial behaviors.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is largely the ethos that surrounds inmates’ issues, and when they are brought into the public eye, the issues are dealt with a high degree of cynicism.

Even if the concerns of a large percentage of our population are ignored, there is a much larger percentage of the population outside of prison that is affected by the incarceration of a loved one. Prisoners often have more than one familial connection in the free world, whether it is siblings, parents or children.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]

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