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Prison phones are a predatory monopoly – One family fought back and won (theverge.com)
371 points by some-guy on May 11, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 104 comments



While I find the conversations in here interesting from an economics perspective they are not solutions to the real problem. This is not a function of cost between inmate, provider, and family alone. These phone systems have a real and tangible cost on society as a whole. An enormous body of research [1] showing that offenders with better/more familial contact while incarcerated have vastly lower recidivism rates.

This is literally companies causing harm (and not just economic) harm to societies citizens at large. I respect jlafon's point of view but I can't agree. The fact that a system you create is difficult to adminster should not mean that the cost of dealing with it should be passed along to your 'customers' (gagging as I use that word). When a group of people chooses to put others in a position of limited power they have a responsibility to protect them from harm. Treating prisoners as a revenue stream at all is immoral and I believe unconstitutional. The argument that they should pay or do anything to contribute to their imprisonment is vapid and ugly. If we aren't willing to shoulder the burden of imprisoning them then we shouldn't do it. We absolutely should not be charging them or their families usury amounts of money to satisfy rules and situations we created.

Letting prisoners use the phone is labor intensive? Why? because you created rules and a system where it is. To spin it as more complicated or containing 'reasons' is post hoc justification nonsense and should be treated as such.

[1] Summarized here: https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2014/apr/15/lowering-re...


The 13th Amendment goes out of its way to specify that slavery is permitted for convicts.

I agree that it's immoral, but it's explicitly, unambiguously Constitutional.


Apologies for a delayed response...traveling and such...I understand the perspective from an absolute sense but I think there are three major problems with this analysis.

1) The system we are discussing more directly punishes the families of those convicted by crimes. That is manifestly unconstitutional on several levels including as it furthers not substantive government interest and restricts both the rights of non-prisoners and prisoners. [1a]. The courts have gone out of their way to uphold the rights of non-prisoners to communicate with prisoners [1b] which this effects.

2) Prisoners are already a protected class in research, specifically because they are not fully able to make uncoerced and voluntary decisions. The industry we are discussing is not beholden to the standards of IRB, but the prisons are still held to a minimal standard of duty of care. [e.g., 2] Allowing them to be monetized at the expense of all evidence of their rehabilitation, care, and well being would not seem to be a reasonable or sincere attempt to meet that standard. If not for 30 years of jurisprudence that treats prisoners as an annoyance

3) The slavery that the reading of the 13th amendment you reference is built around comes from the late 1800's. It referenced prison systems where the prisons were almost entirely self-sufficient based on inmate labor. [3] To use the language of the courts, prisoners were 'slaves of the state' in deference to their participation in this system. That does not mean they have entirely given up their rights [e.g., to free speech [1a,b]], but rather that they are significantly restricted. The prison phone scams and associated employment for private gain in prisons have nothing to do with slavery to the state so as to support the costs of the prison system. Rather this modern 13th amendment slavery to benefit private entities should be treated as unsettled (mostly because the courts defer in an almost unfathomable fashion to corrections departments) or a very troubling new reading of the 13th amendment.

[1a] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/416/396/case.htm... [1b] http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=108... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farmer_v._Brennan [3] https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=1629...


> Treating prisoners as a revenue stream at all is immoral and I believe unconstitutional.

Doubtful. The Constitution makes it clear that slavery is illegal... Except in the case of prisoners.

If you can subject prisoners to forced labor, gouging them on phone calls seems a small step.


On the other hand, denying them access to an affordable communication line to their families -- in an age when such services are cheaper than water,† for the general population -- is arguably cruel and unusual punishment.

And to the prisoners' families -- it's most especially cruel.

† Okay, the calls need monitoring, which increases the cost somewhat. But not by much, and not nearly in proportion to the rates they're currently being gouged for, in some states.


> Okay, the calls need monitoring

There is an honest question as to whether they do in all cases. How is listening to the phone calls of someone in prison for shoplifting or drunk driving not a complete waste of resources?


If it became known they weren't being listened to, they'd be paid by people who were being listened to to act as a communication line.


You don't tell them they aren't being listened to, you just don't bother listening to them. And maybe you do random sampling.

But what problem are you identifying that doesn't already exist via mob attorneys?


I was just acknowledging that the need may exist in the worst possible cases. For the greater sake of demolishing the (perceived) justifications that are touted for this largely wasteful, predatory and vindictive practice.


I'm certainly not a constitutional lawyer, so I ask out of curiosity: has the 13th amendment been interpreted this way?

I feel that there's a difference between slavery as punishment (i.e. being explicitly sentenced to slavery) vs. slavery incidental to punishment (i.e. being explicitly sentenced to imprisonment, and then the private prison deciding to enslave you during your sentence).


Incidental, but morally, there is no difference. Public prisons also take advantage of this clause.

And yes, this has absolutely been interpreted in this way. Unpaid, or grossly underpaid prison labour is extremely common in the US.


That is true about unpaid labour, but my understanding was that this isn't forced on to the prisoners. I understand that prisoners are given the option to work, and reap various benefits in return (modest pay, extra hours outdoors in the case of road crews, and potentially leniancy for "good behavior" at parole hearings).


>I'm certainly not a constitutional lawyer, so I ask out of curiosity: has the 13th amendment been interpreted this way?

No.

see my other post

This is not 'settled' as much as it has been ignored by the courts.


Reading your reference quickly, what stuck out to me is whether the prisoners have already existing better relationships with family prior to incarceration, leading to more regular communication while in prison, and greater integration with family and society after release resulting in lower recidivism. Those who aren't staying in touch may have gone into prison without ongoing family relationships, reduced connections to society, and later, increased risk of recidivism. Perhaps your link addressed that, I didn't notice it though.

I think the system is screwed, don't get me wrong, but the reference may be attributing a surface level effect (allowed to make calls) to a more latent thing (already have decent integration with family and society).


No direct answer but I think the argument is that no matter what restrictions that make communication difficult or intentionally unpleasant have a negative impact. Your question somewhat assumes that the communicate/no communicate is mostly a manifestation of prior familial relations rather than prison actions that prevent contact...i.e.,:

>For example, one female attorney said she was told by prison officials that she could not visit a prisoner because her underwire bra set off the metal detector. After leaving, removing her bra and then returning, she was told she could not visit because she wasn’t wearing a bra.

The possibility for latent effects obviously exists, but there are actions taken by the prisons that can only be seen as attempts to reduce contact, which we can see has a negative impact. Whether its a formative or reflective latent doesn't seem like something that should be a driving factor in decisions here to me.


Why have we decided that the way to treat criminals is to systematically destroy their social support system for profit? This sounds like a terrible idea, and a direction that doesn't seem to be improving the American prison system in the least.


Because American voters--collectively, not individually--are bad people. Our criminal justice system, moreso than other parts of our government, is responsive to the will of the people. And the current state of it is a product of the profound moral failure on the part of the populace.

If you'd rather blame for-profit prisons, think about this. How far removed are we from lynchings, throwing black people into jail on zero evidence, etc? There were no for-profit prisons when states were systematically abusing the rights of the accused--particularly minorities, just 40-50 years ago.


That's a diabolically well-constructed argument. Anyone paying attention to social media knows that the kind of overt racism you refer to lies just below the surface, and bubbles up readily when given the opportunity.

Still, you are overstating the impact of "the will of the people." We live in a well-managed system where "representation" is mostly bought, then legitimized by voting among two bought choices.


We've been ready to end the War On Drugs for a decade - coincidentally the very thing responsible for a majority of our prison ills.


Who is "we?" The vast majority of the population thinks everything except marijuana should be illegal. Also, the drug war is not responsible for the majority of our prison ills. The most egregious stuff (three strikes laws) has nothing to do with the drug war.


Not true, by a wide margin.

http://www.people-press.org/2014/04/02/americas-new-drug-pol...

As for three strikes, drug possession was one of the top offenses for which it is applied.

http://www.lao.ca.gov/2005/3_strikes/3_strikes_102005.htm

"Possession of controlled substances alone made up 12 percent of the state’s [CA] total three strikes population at the time — drug crimes in general accounted for 23 percent."

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/three-strikes-law-drug-addict...


Americans don't want to give jail time for possession. But they still want to keep those drugs (besides pot) illegal by huge margins: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/drug-legalization-poll_n_5162.... I haven't seen any polls asking about trafficking specifically, but I think it's fair to take those two data points to mean people want to target traffickers not users. But that is what the vast majority of the drug war is about. 99.8% of federal prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses were incarcerated for trafficking, not simple possession.

Your California stats are misleading. First, you said that drugs are responsible for the "majority" of our prison ills, but your chart shows that 77% of people sentenced for a second or third strike are for property or personal crimes, or gun possession.

Second, California is unusual in that the third strike can be anything (first two must be violent felonies). So people are in for drug possession, but also for other minor things like larceny. In most states, drug possession doesn't trigger the three strikes rule at all.

In any case, three strikes rules weren't created because of the drug war, even in California. It was a response to a guy who murdered a girl. And note that in several states, these rules passed by public referendum with huge margins less than 25 years ago.


> Second, California is unusual in that the third strike can be anything (first two must be violent felonies).

No, not since the passage of Proposition 36 in 2012: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-strikes_law (see "California")


Right. But the data he's sourced to is from 2005.


> As for three strikes, drug possession was one of the top offenses for which it is applied.

But fundamentally the three strikes rule is a bigger issue there than the drug possession charges themselves, the three strikes remove all judicial flexibility and agency.


Obligatory link to Matt Taibbi's excellent take on the subject (2013):

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/cruel-and-unusual-...


A lot of people feel uncomfortable standing up for criminals, so it's easy to prey on them. The problem is when we put them in a position where their only way out is to commit more crimes.


It is easy to abuse the weak, and there are few weaker than criminals. They have lost their freedom, and acquired an indelible stain on their reputation that will follow them through life, considerably reducing their economic value. They are weak socially, weak economically, and (to many) weak morally.

That's why this story is so important, and incredible: that one of the weakest of us fought a petty injustice, (that is in aggregate is a great injustice), and won. That's positive; but it should make us wonder what other petty injustices are being foisted on the weak. And what other policy changes are being made to weaken the targets.


One comes immediately to mind: financial services for the poor. Check cashing, payday loans, overdraft fees, etc.. Fortunately the CFPB has been fighting in their favor but the scales are still tilted in an extreme direction. It is a social injustice that the middle-upper classes enjoy mostly free banking while the poor have to pay a significant portion of their income to access liquid cash.

Disclaimer: I work for a startup that provides low-cost banking services to the poor. http://www.onefinancialholdings.com/bee/


Yes, payday loans are a good example. In fact I would argue that this extends to ordinary consumers, with late fees, overdraft fees, credit card interest, and so forth. Even traffic tickets can be a form of this.


By the way, I'm glad you're working on this problem. At the end of the day, money flow is information flow, and there is no reason for the poor to be victimized the way they are.


Checking out the startup you work for - seems like it offers the same services as Simple, but charges a monthly fee.

Is there something I'm missing that's different? Only thing I can tell is that Bee allows two free ATM withdrawals a month.


It's not a free account, but you've basically just named two of the very few fees; this makes it significantly cheaper than a Chase Total Checking account ($12/mo for those who do not meet balance requirements, not even counting massive overdraft fees).

Bee makes it (nearly) impossible to put the account into a negative balance, and has no concept of an overdraft fee.

Another big win is mobile check deposit. Customers can deposit checks with instant availability for a 1% fee or use standard clearing for free; this is substantially cheaper than check cashers.


Interesting - yeah the big differentiater seems to be that with Bee you can get instant access to your check for 1%.

Simple has ATMs you can use for free which are pretty common which covers that and also has no overdraft fees (or concept of overdraft really).

Simple has no monthly fee though which is a point in its favor - it also lets you do most of the same thing (lock cards, mail a check etc.).


One difference that immediately jumped out at me is with bee you can send a paper check. My landlord for instance will only take a paper check or money order and with simple it isn't possible to easily pay my rent without a fairly significant inconvenience. I'm sure many poor people are in similar situations.


Simple allows you to mail a paper check too.


> It is easy to abuse the weak, and there are few weaker than criminals. They have lost their freedom, and acquired an indelible stain on their reputation that will follow them through life, considerably reducing their economic value. They are weak socially, weak economically, and (to many) weak morally.

I agree, except you should replace "criminals" with prisoners or inmates. There is a difference, not all prison inmates are criminals and not all criminals are in prison.


> Why have we decided that the way to treat criminals is to systematically destroy their social support system for profit?

Because:

(1) There is a lobby with a lot to gain, and therefore an intense incentive to lobby for it.

(2) For most citizens, prisoners are at best "out of sight, out of mind", and at worst a subject of negative emotional attachment, so harms to them are either discounted or even seen as deserved.

(3) For the citizens directly harmed, they are already disenfranchised.


It's real-world capitalism thought through to the end. You can monetize any service to anyone, even more so when there is a lack of a proper free market in certain niches.


A government-granted monopoly in a prison is not a free market by any stretch of the imagination.


The real-world system named "capitalism" by its critics has never featured free markets in practice, it has always featured a system structured to favor holders of capital.

OTOH, the central feature of both real-world capitalism and the more utopian "free market" idealized form is government establishment and protection of property rights, which are precisely government-granted monopolies.


> OTOH, the central feature of both real-world capitalism and the more utopian "free market" idealized form is government establishment and protection of property rights, which are precisely government-granted monopolies.

That's just equivocating two meanings of the same word though. A title to real estate is a "monopoly" over a piece of land, but it isn't inherently a "monopoly" in the sense that you have no competitors. If you own an apartment building but someone else owns a similar one across the street from you, you have competition. You don't own every apartment building. And it's only in the second sense that a monopoly would be problematic.


Property is a monopoly on the economic sense (giving market/pricing power) whenever the thing over which property is held has no perfect substitute. This is often the case with real property, and also with much intellectual property. It's sometimes, though less often, the case with tangible personal property.


> Property is a monopoly on the economic sense (giving market/pricing power) whenever the thing over which property is held has no perfect substitute.

Which is hardly the common case for an individual piece of real estate. You don't even need perfect substitutes as long as the substitutes are close enough to prevent monopoly pricing.

> This is often the case with real property, and also with much intellectual property.

"Intellectual property" isn't normal property. It is a monopoly in the lack of competition sense. This is especially true for patents which much more rarely have good substitutes (since the same patent is written to cover them too), but is often the case with copyright as well, as with Microsoft. "Intellectual property" is basically worthless if there are many perfect substitutes because it's non-rivalrous. With real property increasing market share inherently requires increasing capital expenditures. A landlord willing to engage in aggressive price competition can't instantly saturate the market by providing 10,000 units to 10,000 tenants when they only own 10. If LibreOffice was a perfect substitute for MS Office then they could do exactly that.

This is why in markets like movies and music where there is good substitution possible, the markets tend toward cartels, because otherwise they would be extremely low margin commodity markets. Which is why those companies hate the internet -- it's interfering with their ability to hold the cartel together by reducing their control over distribution channels.


Don't confuse free markets with capitalism. One of those does imply the other, but not transitively.

Capitalism doesn't need free markets, and many capitalists prefer not having them.


Not reflexively.


[flagged]


Please be civil.


I realize that it is unpopular, but civility would not have made my point. I appreciate your input.


I can't respond to your other comment because it's flagged, so I'll respond here. I think most people don't mind pedants. The comment got a handful of upvotes, so clearly on the whole the addition was appreciated.

It's absolutely possible to be a jerk about correcting someone, but a simple dispassionate "I think you meant X instead of Y" can be helpful.


This platform actively discourages downvoting, so a couple people out of hundreds or thousands of viewers deciding to upvote you doesn't mean that the addition was appreciated.

I thought you meant exactly what you said, and I meant exactly what I said, passion and all. Regardless of the community sanctions, I still mean it.


I'm just confused about the angry implication that they keep doing this. Looking back 60 days I don't see a single other comment like that...


really-existing capitalism doesn't necessitate free markets


You're papering over "legalized monopoly" by using different words.


Thanks for sharing. I'm glad this is staying on our radar lately.

There was another link discussed here recently (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11648361) about how these exorbitant prison phone calls are being replaced with video calls- and ONLY video calls. In the linked article we have this quote: The alternative to high rates isn’t lower rates, the association has suggested — the alternative is that phone calls in jails will be done away with entirely. "Absent these commissions," association president Larry D. Amerson wrote in a comment to the FCC, "counties would need to either increase taxes for the system or jails could potentially cease to provide inmates with this service." So either continue to support this monopoly, or don't speak to or see your brother/cousin/mom in jail at all.

Here in New Jersey where I live, as of yesterday you can no longer visit an inmate in a couple of our prisons, in person. Instead, you can pay Securus for a video connection to the inmate you'd like to speak with. I think if more people who were not directly connected to the System via a friend, family member, or personal experience were aware of what's going on, they would be appalled. Instead we conveniently pretend this stuff isn't happening.

From the linked article: [Securus'] Smith defended his company’s profits on many of the same grounds other inmate phone companies do. The contracts, he says, are a source of funds for crucial corrections services like health care. "It’s really a public policy issue," Smith says. Securus also provides security services, recording calls sent through its system and intervening to break up any illegal plots that it detects. "We really feel like we perform kind of a noble service for society," he says.

What he's not saying is that local municipalities can also get a kickback from the money paid to contact prisoners. So not only does it fund healthcare within the prison system (which of course are also increasingly privatized, so how much of that money do you think can be claimed as profit by the company running the prison), but to fix potholes etc in the local town.. on paper, at least.

What I wish these stories left me with is what to do next. Who do I call, petition, or vote for to get this changed?


Assuming your network is as socially enlightened as you, I would try to figure out if this is happening in your state and contact local government officials about your concerns. Done in a group, it could be a fun social activity to go to a town hall meeting to voice your concerns in public. Afterwards, reward yourselves with a drink for getting out of the house to show your support for good government.


If you give out monopolies, then this is what happens. Here's a simple idea to fix this: capitalism.

Mandate at least two providers at each prison and let them charge whatever they want. Let them race to the bottom so you get the same cheap voip rates the rest of the country has access to.

Oh and if they collude on pricing, throw the management in the same prison.

I bet they'd also start competing on the features the prison cares about too. Like tracking who's calling who, speech to text transcripts, and service levels.

Problem with this approach is that it doesn't allow for the cronyism that is ripe in this type of industry.


N providers will always be a problem for the consumer, if N is fixed. To get providers to compete, you need not only have many of them, but you need to open the market to new players. The lower the barrier to entry ("disruption"), the higher the incentive for incumbents to stay on top of their game.


Two wouldn't be enough: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duopoly



It would seem that EU Regulators agree with this sentiment:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36266924


The linked article describes with a Duopoly is, but not why one would be a problem.


Oligopolies (of which duopoly is the minimal example) produce largely the same problems as monopolies, for largely the same reason, once (formal or indirect through signalling) collusion is factored in; competition works when there are enough market participants that a colluding group that can sweep up the whole set of suppliers is impractical to maintain.


Oddly enough, your statements are directly contradicted by the story. It was under a monopoly -- a national monoply, regulated closely by the federal government -- that the system was, in this case, far better:

"AT&T was the exclusive service provider in the industry, and costs for inmates were comparable for similar services outside. But in the 1980s, an antitrust agreement pulled the Bell System apart. Meanwhile, America’s incarceration rate was booming, driven by the war on drugs and more stringent sentencing guidelines.

"With AT&T in pieces, upstart phone providers saw dollar signs in the bevy of new "customers" waiting to be served. First, other major telecommunications companies, such as MCI and Sprint, moved in. Then came the specialists — dedicated outfits, like Pay Tel Communications and Global TelLink, willing to appeal to the specific needs of the corrections industry. Providing communications to a literally captive audience was highly profitable, and as these companies grew, they popularized a new kind of contract with local governments. These agreements hinged on an idea formally known as the "site commission contract," though critics often describe them using another word: kickback."

"Free market" doesn't by itself sprinkle Magickal Pixiy Duste over all problems and make them go away. A guy wrote a long book about this once, and how unregulated laissez-faire markets tended strongly to special interests and plutonomy. He was named Smith, title is An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations*. Recommended reading.


> If you give out monopolies, then this is what happens. Here's a simple idea to fix this: capitalism.

I believe you meant "a free market".

Please let's stop equating "capitalism" with "free markets"; They are not one-in-the-same, and there are serious problems with the former.


Also, the commenter's suggestion is not a great way to benefit from market forces:

> Mandate at least two providers at each prison and let them charge whatever they want. Let them race to the bottom so you get the same cheap voip rates the rest of the country has access to.

If you want market forces to work, just make the most profitable deals with phone providers. Let phone providers pay the prison to be able to sell their phones in the prison.


While I agree with the ideas you are expressing, I just want to amend your opening:

> If you give out monopolies, then this is what happens. Here's a simple idea to fix this: COMPETITION.

Monopolies aren't some market externality that only occur outside of capitalism (private ownership of the means of production).

Don't mean to split semantic hairs, but I just don't want to perpetuate the mainstream editorializing of "capitalism" into a buzz word meaning something akin to "for private corporations" and that privatization is always better for the market and society.


You're making some flawed assumptions. The prison wants the cash -- these are revenue contracts that generate a lot of money.

The video stuff nets money for the prison operator as and has other benefits. They pull the fiber to the prison in nowhere vile using erate funds for the "schools" in the prison.


Not to mention the municipalities that benefit. There's a perverse incentive to pick the vendor with the highest price, since the muni will net a higher dollar value on the kickbacks.

I'm interested in seeing more about using erate funds to pull fiber and invest in other infrastructure, especially if it's then turned over to a private operator. Do you have any more info about who is doing this, and where?


I was wrong about the ERate thing -- it wasn't a prison, but a juvenile detention center. Kiddie prison is considered a school.

See: http://usac.org/sl/applicants/beforeyoubegin/non-traditional...


Thanks for the link and the correction. I'm going to look into pulling a list of contractors who have used erate funds for infrastructure upgrades which mainly benefited a private prison telco rather than the incarcerated juveniles.


Maybe, but realistically not every problem needs a market constructed to fix it. They could just find providers that offers better prices.


Capitalism is running big parts of the prison system. Creates wrong incentives in that case.

With regards to cellphones though of course capitalism is the answer there.


Our local jail charges for personal visitation, you get 2 visits per week free but can pay a "nominal" fee to stream additional conversations over the Web. Let's just say that fee was ridiculous. I can't find the link for it was $30 for 15 minutes I think.

As a former foster parent that was just trying to connect with the birth parents while they awaited trial, yeah those prices suck.

But hey, who cares about people accused of crimes, right? That's the American way.


Some jails have tried to eliminate all in-person visitation entirely and move to a system where you'd still have to physically go to a jail, but they'd use video streaming, and naturally charge you for the "service."

Their stated reasoning is, drugs, or similar. Even though prisoners are already searched after the visitation, and guards are a common conduit for illegal drugs in jail.

The whole criminal justify industry in the US is sick. Seriously needs a top to bottom shakeup.


Honestly refusing in person visits by default should be outlawed on the grounds of being cruel and unusual punishment. But America loves to be cruel, so I doubt modern courts would establish a Constitutional right to in-person visitation.

Too bad, because imho video-only visitation is a human rights abuse.


Last year the Supreme Court affirmed a religious right to a beard:

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/21/378774424/supreme-court-rules-...

(I searched for "supreme court prisoner rights")

I'm not lampooning the religious right to a beard, I'm suggesting that the atmosphere in the courts may be better than you think.


A great number of Americans seem to think religion is the cure for crime, so that's not a surprise. Consider instead how well mental health, education, and social support fare.


> The whole criminal justify industry in the US

I swear, if I had a dollar for every humorous freudian slip I saw on HN...


First of all, I'm not defending what is obviously predatory. However, there is more involved then what you might think at first glance. Right or wrong, correctional facilities have reasons to discourage phone calls (context: I put myself through college working at a maximum security prison). Calls are supposed to be monitored (usually done manually) to prevent criminal business from being done on prison phones - and there are never enough people to listen to all calls. There are never enough phones either, which frequently causes tension between inmates using phones and those waiting for them. In higher security levels phones are labor intensive. An officer has to escort a (potentially dangerous) person from their cell to the phone, and stand there for the duration of the call. And to the article's point, it's such a problem that prepaid phone cards are a form of currency on the inside.


> Calls are supposed to be monitored (usually done manually) to prevent criminal business from being done on prison phones - and there are never enough people to listen to all calls.

At $1/minute sorts of rates, it should be possible to pay several people to listen to a call.


Calls are supposed to be monitored (usually done manually) to prevent criminal business [...] In higher security levels phones are labor intensive. An officer has to escort [...] from their cell to the phone, and stand there for the duration of the call.

Sounds like part of the solution is right there, at least in higher security prisons, which is to have the escort also monitor the call. Record all calls regardless and perform spot-audits so that any potential collusion between inmates, outsiders and escorts can be eliminated or minimized. A higher percentage of spot-audits should be carried out on repeat offenders and lower percentage on inmates associated with minor crimes - risk can be assessed with a couple of conditional equations. Advise inmates and staff of monitoring system to prevent collusion from forming in the first place.


They record the phone calls. It seems that if there was an incident it is trivial to review phone calls and bring evidence to bear against the guilty parties.


Or someone like Google could be doing this as a service? Isn't GOOG411 how they captured enough voice data to train their neural nets for Google Now?


This is because the people running the show have created a problem. Let business be done. Let all prisoners know all phone calls are recorded and may be monitored at any time. And record all of them. Then get a company that does this sort of thing to transcribe them all. Then do a search on all the text for keywords that might indicate problems or send the text to India to be read. That's it. The rest, well you know who they are calling, those are potential people to investigate... send those to the NSA or the police.

Or just let illegal business be done. What's the worst that could happen. Lots of criminals outside of bars too.

Also you could let the non-violent ones do whatever and only watch the violent ones. It just depends on whether or not you have a problem solving attitude or a problem creating one. It seems the prison industrial complex creates problems and then spends lots of money to solve them, money of prisoner's families who are already broke and belong to low income households.


>Or just let illegal business be done. What's the worst that could happen. Lots of criminals outside of bars too.

What's the worst that could happen? How about this: inmate arranges a contract on witnesses in his case.


Monitor calls: How can this be an issue when we have the NSA able to snoop on all the worlds' phone calls and mine them for content.

Apple Siri has the ability to translate spoken word to text.

The point is that there is lots of technology that can do a first pass filter on phone calls.

It doesn't need to be manual.

Additionally, this is ignoring the reality that cell phones are smuggled into prisons as well. Any coordinated criminal activity doesn't need to use a land line that is monitored - just use a smuggled cell phone. ( http://fusion.net/story/41931/inside-the-prison-systems-illi... )


> The point is that there is lots of technology that can do a first pass filter on phone calls.

Like most things, it becomes a question of incentives not technology. To the prison it looks like:

You want me to pay lots of money to develop/purchase a system that will vastly reduce the overhead on my very expensive phone system and will probably make me have to charge less?

(And for private prisons)

This will reduce recidivism and therefor the number of repeat 'customers' coming to my facility?


Of all the ways of limiting phone use, is this a good method.

Why not just limit duration?


If you're going to permit phone calls at all, you need to allow enough duration to enable the reasons for allowing phone calls, and that's plenty enough time to orchestrate criminal activity.


Is there any evidence that criminals conduct more criminal activity during their prison sentence than the general populace? If there isn't any, then either you should be monitoring all citizen calls, or get rid of this arbitrary punishment for criminals. If there is such evidence, is the difference substantial enough to warrant the surveillance?


>Is there any evidence that criminals conduct more criminal activity during their prison sentence than the general populace?

The point is rather moot, considering that one of the main purposes of incarceration is incapacitation (effect of a sentence in positively preventing, rather than merely deterring, future offending).

I.e. you cannot steal, rob or kill because being monitored in prison prevents you from doing so. Lack of evidence therefore wouldn't make much of a justification for removing such monitoring because it could be argued just to show that the monitoring works.

However, without digging into statistics I would expect that there is more crime in prisons than outside (not because incapacitation wouldn't work at all, but because offenders are concentrated in prison).

There is substantial violence in prisons between inmates. (Not only in the US but everywhere).


I think this is a very unique article from a web design perspective. The counter on the left hand side, indicating the time you've been reading, and how much your charges would be if you spent that time on the phone is genius. It really hammers in the point of how unethical this practice is.


True, except it was distracting to the point that I couldn't finish reading the article...


What a horrible thing to do to innocent American families. Bad enough their loved ones have fucked up mightily enough to be incarcerated but now the state gouges the hell out them just to talk to each other.

This is not how a government should treat its people.


It's getting worse. Prisons are now forcing inmates and families to use video visitation, eliminating all in person visits.

http://www.businessinsider.com/video-visitation-is-ending-in...


Think what a thrashing, including calling out the founders and management, companies like uBeam and Theranos get here. Ghouls like prison telcos are 100X worse. Where do we get people who run these operations? Who are they and what makes them tick?


They are part of a cycle of private wealth creation that includes, but is not limited to, the following elements:

1. Local politicians "save money" by outsourcing management of prisons in their districts to private companies

2. Contracts awarded for services within these systems have kickbacks which direct money for services back to the municipalities

3. States award contracts to build new prisons in towns, who are told that jobs will be created for their towns, plus the aforementioned kickbacks

4. Now that the prisons are built, they have to be filled. So the local police departments get to work arresting people to fill them up. Judges, lawyers, sherrif's departments, etc justify their own existences by meeting arrest quotas, being "tough on crime," etc., get promoted up their respective ladders until they're in positions of power to keep the cycle going.


I shared an office with a guy who did a couple years for white collar crime. He got out and started a business that placed local voip numbers near prisons then patched the calls through to long distance numbers. He charged way less than the prisons were charging for long distance calls.

He was making a ton of money last I talked to him.


Hillary (and other politicians on both sides, from local to federal) get a ton of for-profit prison money. No wonder.

EDIT: VICE did a piece in 2014 on people getting locked up because they could not pay their parole fees. Yes, debtors' prison, where parolees pay (or not) for the privilege of freedom. https://news.vice.com/article/debtors-prisons-are-taking-the...


Can't we just let them have cell phones and let law enforcement tap them by getting a warrant?



Seems most of mankind's daily labors are inclined toward predatory monopoly these days; either creating their own or wage-slaving toward preserving another's. One laughs with today's comedians as they parody the manners of yesteryear, those musty, pinkies-out concepts of gentlemen and gentlewomen, that gullible faith in the golden rule, yet one's teeth are soon sent gnashing when those many insurances which buttress men's insolence are found to be effected by the same selfish, hard-hearted men as oneself.

Rather than Thoreau's "quiet desperation", the masses instead seem bent toward lives of "clawing desperation".


Is there a good reason prisoners not to have 24/7 internet access and phones for free. Even if monitored.

Hell - give them a free WoW or LoL accounts and they may forget to come out of prison once their term is over.


something about "prison" and "winning" used in the same sentence had me immediately peg this article as TLDR...




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