By Michelle Dillon
In his 2018 article “How Prisons Serve Capitalism,” Dan Berger wrote, “More than profit, capitalism generates misery from its poorest subjects.”[i] Especially in the context of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that a fulcrum of carceral control is not simply physical isolation, but also social and mental isolation. When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States in March 2020, carceral facilities effectively ended free-of-charge access to the world outside their cell walls. In-person visitation was halted, prison libraries were closed, and higher education programs were cut off. Simultaneously, facilities locked down incarcerated individuals in their cells for 23 hours or more each day, what advocates have decried as “effectively solitary confinement” with permanent psychological scars.[ii] More than four months into this crisis, incarcerated individuals are still living under these intolerable conditions with the crushing knowledge that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and uncontrollably throughout their facilities, where social distancing is impossible. By April 2020, 80% of people incarcerated at two state prisons had contracted the virus.[iii] By July 2020, more than 2,000 people at San Quentin State Prison were infected with COVID-19; people incarcerated under these conditions describe feeling like “sitting ducks” as they wait for the pandemic to arrive in their cells.[iv]
Yet, despite the obvious need for human connection and mental stimulation during this time, concessions for mechanisms to alleviate social and mental isolation have been practically non-existent. Privatization, a hallmark of modern carceral oppression in the USA, has ensured that phone calls and other communication, as well as music, movies, and books, are still controlled by private companies, which prioritize consistent profit no matter what the circumstances. As facilities eliminate free access points, millions of dollars in revenue will be siphoned during the COVID-19 pandemic from some of the most impoverished people in the country,[v] through charges for telecommunications and other information consumption and transmission.
Although much attention is given to the privatization of physical jails, prisons, and immigrant detention facilities, this privatization actually impacts less than 9% of the incarcerated population.[vi] A more pervasive type of privatization—private control over goods and services inside facilities—impacts every incarcerated person. The door to privatization inside carceral facilities was opened in the 1980s[vii] and companies have pushed to capture every market since then. Privatization inside facilities now includes telephone calls, video calls, health care, commissary, care packages, emails, e-books, music, movies, and money handling infrastructure, such as money deposits and prepaid debit cards for people being released from custody. Revenue is maximized by inflating costs and/or by slashing the quality of the goods and services being provided. While it can be argued that the function of profit-making is secondary to the primary function of incarceration to classify and neutralize underclasses in this country,[viii] the profit-making motive still threatens the material conditions of the incarcerated and their communities. The companies in control of these goods and services, collectively termed prison profiteers,[ix] generate billions of dollars in annual revenue as part of the broader prison-industrial complex.[x] As millions of people have lost their livelihoods during the coronavirus pandemic, and as jails and prisons refuse to release prisoners to their families, prison profiteers continue to resist the moral obligations to remove costs for communication and access to information. As abolitionists, we demand #FREETHEMALL, but in this moment, we must continue to fight at every access point—including profiteering—to expose the violence of these carceral logics.
Understanding the full scope of privatization and the impact of a global pandemic, although vital (and includes such ludicrous examples as facilities refusing to provide free soap during a public health crisis[xi]), is a broader discussion than this post can encompass. We will therefore focus here on tools to maintain access to communication and information for people who now face daily quarantine lockdowns. This discussion will center around advocacy already in motion and how you can join the struggle now.
Outside jails and prisons, people have a myriad of options for making phone calls, from free online services to cheap monthly plans that reduce the costs of individual calls to mere pennies. Inside facilities, however, monopoly telecom providers exploit artificial exclusivity to create opaque and unfair pricing structures. Families pay different rates depending on whether their telephone numbers are categorized as local, interLATA, intraLATA, intrastate, or interstate, and they face stacked deposit fees and artificial “connection fees.” In 2015, a single phone call could have cost a family as much as $14 per minute, with additional fees bloating base costs as much as 40%.[xii] Currently, the two largest prison telecommunication companies are Securus (under the same umbrella company, Aventiv, as JPay) and GTL. Securus contracts with 3,400 facilities.[xiii] GTL contracts with 2,300 facilities,[xiv] including all federal immigration detention facilities. By early 2019, GTL controlled about 50% of the prison telecommunication market,[xv] with Securus close behind.
Prison video calls are superficially similar to Skype or Zoom calls, but each call to an incarcerated loved one can cost as much as $1 a minute.[xvi] Facilities market this service as “video visitation,” but these glitchy, low-resolution video calls bear little resemblance to in-person visitation. Some companies have exploited incarceration to create contracts demanding jails eliminate in-person visits when paid video calls are introduced; by May 2015, 100 jails had such exclusionary contracts (most exclusionary provisions have since been cancelled following public pressure).[xvii] One company alone, Aventiv Technologies (Securus/JPay), was providing video calls to 573 facilities across the country by late 2019.[xviii]
Prison tablets—mobile, iPad-like devices that can be updated at kiosks in central areas of the prison—present great potential (including video visit access; emails; downloadable music, movies, and books; and new routes for educational delivery and legal access) but privatization has turned this potential into a profiteering nightmare. Each email (or, as per a recent Prison Policy Initiative report, the cut-rate product that companies “have the nerve to call email”[xix]) costs money and absurdly tiny character limits induce the need for extra emails to complete messages.[xx] In 2018, when the Florida Department of Corrections switched contractors, prisoners lost $11 million in downloaded music,[xxi] an indication of the vast sums of money being made from these services. Indeed, JPay estimated in 2018 that it would make $8.8 million within five years through a new contract with New York prisons.[xxii] Depending on the contract, tablet companies may charge fees for downloading content, periodic subscription costs, or even per minute charges to read books, like in a widely condemned 2019 contract between GTL and the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.[xxiii]Although costs for tablet services vary slightly between facilities, costs at all facilities are higher than one would expect to pay on the outside.[xxiv]
These three mechanisms could provide social and information access during COVID-19, but neither prison profiteers nor carceral facilities would profit from free provision, and thus access is throttled, even during this pandemic. By May 2020, the Florida Department of Corrections, via Securus, was offering two free fifteen-minute phone calls per week. Any additional services were full price. Securus was also offering just one free weekly fifteen-minute phone call through the Georgia Department of Corrections, while offering five free weekly fifteen-minute phone calls in Pennsylvania prisons. Meanwhile, their competitor, GTL, was offering just two five-minute phone calls per week to state prisoners in sixteen states.[xxv] For Washington State prisoners in medical isolation, phone access was limited to one call per week—and, per an April 22, 2020, DOC memo, these individuals would only have been able to access that phone call through the intermediary of prison staff, who planned to use phone access strictly to update only one allocated contact person.[xxvi]
According to the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, as of July 29, 2020, eighteen state prison systems were providing some compensated access to video calls (compensation may include reduced costs or a limited number of free calls) .[xxvii] As with phone calls, these concessions have been minimal, despite the increased need for services. The Washington Department of Corrections offers just one free video call per week via JPay (Securus), despite the department’s lip service about “how important communication is to our incarcerated population.”[xxviii]Months after in-person visits were suspended at all carceral facilities, some facilities have introduced video calls for the very first time—still not for free, however. In its July 2020 announcement, the Morris County Correctional Facility blithely described the complete lack of contact with family for the previous four months as an event that “dispirited some inmates” and offered one free video visit per week to people without financial means.[xxix]
Email concessions have been equally underwhelming. Securus is offering four free weekly email “stamps” to Florida prisoners, two free weekly stamps in Georgia and Washington, and so forth. The same company (JPay) also announced “Free Reply Wednesday” starting in April 2020—meaning that families could send one free reply to paid emails sent from jails and prisons, but only on Wednesdays, and only if the correct box was selected on the online portal.[xxx]
Early and ongoing responses were especially lackluster in comparison to international reactions. By mid-April, Scottish prisons, for example, provided mobile phones to prisoners when visitation was suspended, and phone kiosks were risky to access. The Scottish Government and Scottish Prison Service also increased the number of free phone calls, provided free televisions in cells, expanded other in-cell entertainment options, and increased access to email.[xxxi] Meanwhile, at that point, facilities in three states in the US partnered with a private company to introduce telephone monitoring of spoken phrases such as “COVID-19” or mentions of coughs and sneezes; it’s being cynically marketed as a system “that can mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic across our nation’s jail and prison facilities.”[xxxii] In a July 23, 2020, press release, Securus (JPay/Aventiv) crowed about its minimal accommodations during the pandemic, proudly sharing that, “Additionally, public defenders can also access free calls at many locations during the pandemic” (thus indicating an expectation that public defenders should pay for phone access in at least some locations).[xxxiii] The contrast could not be clearer: while other countries have invested in free and expanded prison communication during the spread of COVID-19, the US has other priorities. In the words of Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), “It is unconscionable—but wholly expected—that companies profiting off of mass incarceration would not stop their profiteering in the face of a global pandemic.”[xxxiv]
However, external pressure has produced encouraging developments at both the state and federal levels. In the first known program of its kind, as of March 19, 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections began to offer a free forty-five-minute video call per week to every prisoner through Zoom[xxxv]—a notable departure from the near-total duopoly of JPay/Securus and GTL. This decision follows intense campaigning in recent years by Pennsylvania activists to call out profiteering, such as GTL’s $150 prison tablets featuring e-books costing up to $24.99.[xxxvi] Since the onset of the pandemic, members of Congress have issued letters to the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to demand free or reduced costs for phone calls at associated prison facilities. The first stimulus package included language to provide free phone call at federal facilities. A supplemental Act, passed by the House in May 2020, set caps on phone rates and prevented local and state agencies from collecting commissions on phone calls for the duration of the pandemic. On August 6, 2020, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth sent a letter to the Majority and Minority Leaders encouraging them to include state-level provisions for free phone and video calls. In an interview about these developments, Bianca Tylek, the Executive Director of Worth Rises, an organization fighting these costs, mused, “[A]fter years of advocacy, the prison phone justice movement certainly has its allies in Congress, and it paid off in a bizarre moment.”[xxxvii]
As Carrie Freshour and Brian Williams have argued in “Abolition in the Time of COVID-19,” abolition is about “about reimagining the networks of care that have for so long been manipulated by racial capitalism” and this pandemic is an opportunity to connect “the threads of incarceration and demands traditionally siloed as ‘labor’ and working class concerns.”[xxxviii] How do we combat the growth of communication and information prison profiteering during this crisis and beyond?
Campaigns specifically addressing and alleviating communications and information profiteering that have developed during the spread of COVID-19 include:
- #ConnectFamiliesNow (“As social distancing reminds us of the importance of communication, we must stand up for families who cannot afford it”[xxxix]), a campaign led by Worth Rises and community organizations;[xl]
- An organizational sign-on letter addressed to Aventiv (JPay/Securus) and GTL to make prison tablet content as free as possible (“Tablets and e-readers are one of the few ways that some of the nation’s two million incarcerated people have to access educational and recreational content in prison, especially critical as officials respond to the virus by further isolating prison populations from the outside world”);[xli]
- Mutual aid relief funds to support necessary purchases for people who are incarcerated. Those efforts include a fund from Black & Pink Boston and the Deeper Than Water Coalition, which is providing funds for commissary and phone calls.[xlii]
“A world without the parasitic companies that dominate the industry is achievable,” wrote prison profiteering scholar Stephen Raher earlier this year, but it will require “concerted effort by advocates and a willingness on the part of policymakers to see incarcerated people and their families as consumers entitled to the same protections that are enjoyed by most people every day.”[xliii] Boost the content of these projects. Get involved with organizations. Join mutual aid efforts to offer contact and communication with prisoners who may not otherwise have the people on the outside that the current profiteering system necessitates. Help these campaigns grow. Fight the isolation and engineered misery.
About the author
Michelle Dillon is the former Development Coordinator and Public Records Manager for the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), whose mission is to protect the human and civil rights of prisoners. Among other advocacy, HRDC manages the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (www.prisonphonejustice.org), the Stop Prison Profiteering Campaign, and has been a leader in the fight against jail and prison censorship.
[i] Dan Berger (2018). How Prisons Serve Capitalism. Public Books. Accessed at: https://www.publicbooks.org/how-prisons-serve-capitalism/#fn-23230-3
[ii] Jean Casella & Katie Rose Quandt (2020). Prisons’ Use of Solitary Confinement Explodes with the COVID-19 Pandemic, While Advocates Push for Alternatives. Solitary Watch. Accessed at: https://solitarywatch.org/2020/04/10/prisons-use-of-solitary-confinement-explodes-with-the-covid-19-pandemic-while-advocates-push-for-alternatives/
[iii] Jake Zuckerman (2020). Nearly 80% of Inmates Have COVID-19 at Two Ohio Prisons. News 5 Cleveland. Accessed at: https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/continuing-coverage/coronavirus/nearly-80-of-inmates-have-covid-19-at-two-ohio-prisons
[iv] Kim Christensen & Richard Winton (2020). Inmates talk of COVID fear and helplessness after transfers bring ‘the beast’ to San Quentin. Los Angeles Times. Accessed at: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-22/coronavirus-prisons-transfers-covid-deaths-inmates
[v] Saneta deVuono-Powell, Chris Schweidler, Alicia Walters, and Azadeh Zohrabi. Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families. Oakland, CA: Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, Research Action Design, 2015. Accessed at: https://ellabakercenter.org/sites/default/files/media/Who-Pays-FINAL-2.pdf
[vi] Wendy Sawyer & Peter Wagner (2020). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html
[vii] Tim Requarth (2019). How Private Equity is Turning Public Prisons into Big Profits. The Nation. Accessed at: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/prison-privatization-private-equity-hig/
[viii] Angela Y. Davis (2000). From the Convict Lease System to the Super-Max Prison. In J. James (Ed.), States of confinement: policing, detention, and prisons. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
[ix] Tara Herivel & Paul Wright (2009). Prison Profiteers. Publication place and press TBD.
[x] Stephen Raher (2020). The Company Store and the Literally Captive Market: Consumer Law in Prisons and Jails, Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal, 17(3). Available at: https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_race_poverty_law_journal/vol17/iss1/3
[xi] Jack Herrera (2020). In ICE Detention, Forced to Pay for Soap. The Nation. Accessed at: https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/coronavirus-ice-detention-soap/
[xii] Federal Communications Commission (2015). FCC Takes Next Big Steps in Reducing Inmate Calling Costs. FCC Press Release, October 22, 2015. Accessed at: https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-335984A1.pdf
[xiii] Securus Tech. Facilities We Serve. https://securustech.online/#/facilities-we-serve
[xiv] GTL. About Us. https://www.gtl.net/about-us/
[xv] Peter Wagner & Alexi Jones (2019). State of Phone Justice. Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/state_of_phone_justice.html
[xvi] Nicole Lewis & Beatrix Lockwood (2019). Can You Hear Me Now?. The Marshall Project. Accessed at: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/12/19/can-you-hear-me-now
[xvii] Hanna Kozlowska (2015). Prison Communications Company Securus Will no Longer Require Jails to Ban In-person Visits. Quartz Daily Brief. Accessed at: https://qz.com/400055/prison-communications-company-securus-will-no-longer-require-jails-to-ban-in-person-visits/
[xviii] Nicole Lewis & Beatrix Lockwood (2019). Can You Hear Me Now?. The Marshall Project. Accessed at: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/12/19/can-you-hear-me-now
[xix] Wanda Bertram & Peter Wagner (2018). How to Spot the Hidden Costs in a “No-Cost” Tablet Contract. Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2018/07/24/no-cost-contract/
[xx] Stephen Raher (2016). You’ve Got Mail. Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/messaging/report.html
[xxi] Adi Robertson (2019). Florida Prisons are Getting Sued for Erasing $11 Million Worth of Prisoner Music Purchases. The Verge. Accessed at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/20/18233317/florida-department-of-corrections-class-action-lawsuit-william-demler-jpay-mp3-song-access
[xxii] Patrick Lohmann (2018). Company Giving Tablets to NY Prisoners Expects to Get $9M from Inmates over 5 Years. Upstate New York. Accessed at: https://www.newyorkupstate.com/news/2018/02/company_giving_tablets_to_ny_inmates_expects_to_get_9m_from_inmates_over_5_years.html
[xxiii] Appalachian Prison Book Project (2020). How Much Does it Cost to Read a Free Book on a Free Tablet?. APBP Blog Post. Accessed at: https://appalachianprisonbookproject.org/2019/11/20/how-much-does-it-cost-to-read-a-free-book-on-a-free-tablet/
[xxiv] Stephen Raher (2017). The Wireless Prison: How Colorado’s Tablet Computer Program Misses Opportunities and Monetizes the Poor. Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/07/06/tablets/
[xxv] Molly Minta (2020). With Prison Visitation Suspended Due to COVID-19, Families of Incarcerated People Say Phone Calls Should Be Free. The Appeal. Accessed at: https://theappeal.org/prison-calls-covid-19/
[xxvi] Washington Department of Corrections (2020). Memo: Phone Use for Those on Medical Isolation Status. Accessed at: https://doc.wa.gov/news/2020/docs/2020-0422-incarcerated-individuals-memo-phone-use-on-isolation.pdf
[xxvii] COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project (2020). Home Page. Accessed at: https://law.ucla.edu/centers/criminal-justice/criminal-justice-program/related-programs/covid-19-behind-bars-data-project/
[xxviii] Washington Department of Corrections (2020). Department of Corrections Negotiates Free Calls and Reduced Digital Costs for Incarcerated Population. Washington DOC Press Release. Accessed at: https://www.doc.wa.gov/news/2020/03202020p.htm
[xxix] Russ Crespolini (2020). Morris County Inmates to Receive Visitors—Virtually. The Patch. Accessed at: https://patch.com/new-jersey/morristown/morris-county-inmates-receive-visitors-virtually
[xxx] Personal correspondence with Seattle-area family members of state prisoners
[xxxi] Scottish Government (2020). Plans for Mobile Phones to be Used to Support Those in Custody. Scottish Government Press Release. Accessed at: https://www.gov.scot/news/plans-for-mobile-phones-to-be-used-to-support-those-in-custody/
[xxxii] Akela Lacy, Alice Speri, Jordan Smith, & Sam Biddle (2020). Prisons Launch “Absurd” Attempt to Detect Coronavirus in Inmate Phone Calls. The Intercept. Accessed at: https://theintercept.com/2020/04/21/prisons-inmates-coronavirus-monitoring-surveillance-verus/
[xxxiii] Securus Technologies (2020). Securus Technologies Provides Update on Free and Reduced Rate Communications During COVID-19 Pandemic. Accessed at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/securus-technologies-provides-update-on-free-and-reduced-rate-communications-during-covid-19-pandemic-301098908.html
[xxxiv] Chris May (2020). Prison Telecom Giant Offers Aid to Prisoners—For a Price. The American Prospect. Accessed at: https://prospect.org/justice/prison-telecom-giant-offers-aid-to-prisoners-for-a-price/
[xxxv] Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (2020). Video Visitation Visitor Guide. Pennsylvania DOC Press Release. Accessed at: https://www.cor.pa.gov/family-and-friends/Documents/Video-Visitation-Visitor-Guide.pdf
[xxxvi] Jodi Lincoln (2018). Incarcerated Pennsylvanians Now Have to Pay $150 to Read. We Should All Be Outraged. The Washington Post. Accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/incarcerated-pennsylvanians-now-have-to-pay-150-to-read-we-should-all-be-outraged/2018/10/11/51f548b8-cbd9-11e8-a85c-0bbe30c19e8f_story.html
[xxxvii] Rachel Cohen (2020). Senators Push for Free Prison Phone Calls in Next Coronavirus Relief Bill. The Intercept. Accessed at: https://theintercept.com/2020/08/07/prison-phone-calls-coronavirus-relief-bill/
[xxxviii] Carrie Freshour & Brian Williams (2020). Abolition in the Time of COVID-19. Antipode Online. Accessed at: https://antipodeonline.org/2020/04/09/abolition-in-the-time-of-covid-19/
[xxxix] Color of Change (2020). Help Families Stay Connected With Loved Ones Behind Bars During COVID-19, and Beyond. Petition. Accessed at: https://act.colorofchange.org/sign/connect-incarcerated-families-now-covid-19-coronavirus/?source=worthrises
[xl] Connect Families Now (2020). Our Campaigns. Accessed at: https://connectfamiliesnow.com/ourcampaigns
[xli] PEN America (2020). Prison E-Readers and Tablets Should Be Free During Coronavirus Outbreak. PEN America Press Release. Accessed at: https://pen.org/press-release/prison-e-readers-and-tablets-should-be-free-during-coronavirus-outbreak/
[xliii] Ibid xvii (Raher 2020)