Inmates in Oklahoma state prisons will soon connect to the outside world through Securus Technologies, a Texas-based prison communications company that has paid out millions over the past four years to settle claims that it illegally recorded phone conversations between inmates and attorneys.
Securus has also faced multiple class-action lawsuits from family and friends of inmates who say the company excessively charged them between $9.99 and $14.99 for a 15-minute call.
In a July 29 Facebook post, the state Department of Corrections announced Securus won a contract bid and would replace Global Tel Link as the agency’s inmate phone provider. Securus phone systems are being installed and will be operational in all state facilities by Sept. 4, according to the corrections department.
Since 2014, attorneys in Kansas, Texas, California and Maine have filed class-action lawsuits that accuse Securus of illegally recording their calls with inmates and storing the tapes in an online database accessible to prosecutors. Inmate-attorney phone calls are protected under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Federal Wiretap Act, and may not be monitored or recorded.
On Aug. 3, Securus and private prison operator CoreCivic agreed to pay $3.7 million to settle a lawsuit brought on by 750 Kansas attorneys who say their conversations with inmates at the Leavenworth Correctional Center were recorded. Three attorneys in Maine filed a similar lawsuit on Aug. 12, claiming hundreds of their conversations with inmates in four county jails were recorded.
Robert Cummins, a defense attorney representing the class-action plaintiffs in Maine, said Securus has consistently failed to implement effective security protocols despite facing numerous lawsuits. At the four county jails in Maine, inmate calls with attorneys were automatically recorded and sent to the database unless the attorney called jail administrators and requested an exemption from recording.
Cummins said any institution or agency considering doing business with Securus should make “damn sure” that there are rigid safeguards in place to protect privileged calls from being recorded before agreeing to a contract.
“This outlet has been sued every way and Sunday, and they’ve ponied up millions of dollars in compensation,” Cummins told Oklahoma Watch on Monday. “I think that tells you a whole lot about what kind of an outlet it is.”
Securus has denied wrongdoing in each case, saying attorney phone numbers were not properly entered into their system to be exempt from recording. But after settling with the group of Kansas attorneys earlier this month, Securus spokesperson Jade Trombetta said the company would explore ways to enhance privacy protections.
“We are troubled by any misuse of our technology, even if unintentional, which is why we are making substantial investments in improvements to our call system that will provide incarcerated individuals and their attorneys even more clarity regarding the status of private or non-private calls,” she said.
According to DOC Spokesperson Justin Wolf, all Oklahoma state prisons maintain a do-not-record list. Inmates, who may only contact numbers on an approved call list, may request that their attorney’s number be exempt from monitoring.
“If they were going to have their attorney call them, they let us know who their attorney is and we go through a process to verify that information,” Wolf said. “Then we put them on the do not record list.”
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High rates, more lawsuits
Securus is a frequent target of lawsuits from family and friends of inmates, who say their rates are excessive and unreasonable.
In August 2017, a federal judge in California dismissed a lawsuit filed by four prisoners claiming that Securus, along with its competitor GTL, charged “unreasonable, unjust and exorbitant rates”, and kicked back large commissions to the institutions.
In a class-action lawsuit filed last June, family members of prisoners in four different states accused Securus and Global Tel Link of secretly inflating prices and lying to local governments and its customers about the true cost of calls. According to the plaintiffs, Securus charged between $9.99 and $14.99 in some facilities just to pick up a call.
Though fees and contracts vary by facility, the highest prison phone call rates in Oklahoma are found at a facility that uses Securus services.
Family and friends of inmates housed at Davis Correctional Center in Holdenville — a private prison which contracted with Securus prior to the DOC switchover — pay $3.60 for the first minute of a call followed by 11 cents per minute. They must also pay a $3 transaction fee to add funds to their account.
At state facilities under Global Tel Link, family and friends of inmates paid a flat 20 cent per minute rate, meaning a 15 minute phone call would cost $3.
When he was housed at Bill Johnson Correctional Center in Alva, Eliza Cordova of Guymon would talk to her boyfriend, Levon Byers, on the phone everyday. But after Byers was transferred to Davis, the $6 cost for a 15-minute phone call became overwhelming, and the couple now talks just once per week.
“We’ve had to adjust,” Cordova said. “There’s a lot more letter writing now.”
After the DOC announced the service provider change on Facebook, family and friends of inmates housed at state prisons expressed worry that rates would go up under Securus. According to Wolf, phone call rates at state facilities will actually go down under the new service agreement, with Securus charging slightly less than 20 cents per minute rate with no connection charges or fees.
As the coronavirus pandemic disrupted in-person visitation, the Department of Corrections and Global Tel Link began providing one free five-minute call per week to inmates in mid-March. Wolf said those free calls will continue under Securus. Last week, Securus issued a press release claiming the company has provided 176 million free minutes of phone connection to inmates during the pandemic.
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Though the federal government has attempted to regulate the cost of prison phone calls, states and private companies like Securus currently have broad discretion on how much to charge for intrastate phone calls.
In October 2015, the Federal Communications Commission issued regulations lowering the cost of all prison phone calls to a maximum of 11 cents per minute. The cost for county jails was lowered to 14 to 22 cents per minute, depending on the size of the jail.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections and Oklahoma Sheriffs Association submitted testimony opposing the ruling, saying it would severely impact their budget. As part of service agreements with private communications companies, prisons and jails typically receive a commission of profits from inmate calls, which helps fund operations.
Under its former contract with GTL, the DOC received 50% of all profits the company generated, amounting to an average of $1.2 million per year. The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to an open records request seeking a copy of the new contract agreement with Securus.
The effort to bring down prison and jail phone costs nationwide ultimately fell short, as the U.S. Tenth Circuit of Appeals ruled 2-1 in June 2017 that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate intrastate calls. The ruling did not affect interstate calls, which are capped at 21 cents per minute for prepaid calls and 25 cents per minute for collect calls.
To get around the high fees many facilities charge for intrastate calls, some family members of inmates have resorted to getting an out-of-state phone line.
Heather Lane of Cushing, whose husband is incarcerated at Davis Correctional Facility, went to her phone provider a few years ago and added a line with a Colorado area code. Using the out-of-state number, Lane said she has saved hundreds of dollars.
“If I wouldn’t have had the forethought to go onto their [Securus] website and see if they had different rates for different states, then I would be paying a lot more,” Lane said.
Though its legal authority on the matter is limited, the FCC is again trying to correct the issue of intrastate calls costing more than local calls.
In a July 20 letter to state public service commissioners, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked states to consider lowering their prison and jail phone call rates in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Pai, intrastate call rates substantially exceed interstate call rates in at least 45 states, and many interstate callers are subject to unreasonable first-minute charges.
“High rates and charges for inmate calling services can impede the ability of these individuals and their families to stay connected by making it prohibitively expensive for inmates and their families to stay in touch,” Pai said in the letter. “This can have devastating impacts. Regular contact with family has been shown to reduce inmate recidivism, and children who stay in touch with an incarcerated parent exhibit fewer disruptive and anxious behaviors.”
Though her out-of-state number helps reduce costs some, Lane said she still pays Securus hundreds of dollars per month to stay in touch with her husband. New regulations or law changes that lead to lower prison phone rates would be a welcome relief, she said.
“Phone calls are where we figure out all our household issues and familial issues,” Lane said. “It’s extremely important for us to be able to communicate.”
Keaton Ross is a 2020 Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss