UPDATE: A Securus representative reached out to APR to share updates on two key issues related to the story. First, Securus, after a number of complaints and bad publicity, no longer offers location-based tracking services. Secondly, the company also doesn’t have any control over whether prisons elect to discontinue in-person family visits with inmates. It offers the video conferencing visits as “a supplemental alternative” to in-person visits, but it never suggested the calls should replace those visits.
A company that has faced multiple lawsuits for unfair charges and practices, and has drawn the ire of U.S. Senators for selling the personal data of thousands of Americans, is the Alabama Department of Correction’s choice to provide a statewide communications system in Alabama’s prisons.
The Legislature’s Contract Review Committee is set this morning to review a contract proposal between ADOC and Securus Technologies, a Dallas company that is one of the top providers of prison phone services in America. While the Committee can review and place up to a 90-day hold on the contract for review, it ultimately cannot stop any contract that comes before it.
Securus has been accused in other states of unfairly increasing rates on inmates’ phone calls, leaving a captive and helpless clientele to pay more for a 15-minute call than some Americans pay for their monthly cell phone bill.
But it is Securus’ collection of data and tendency to record all phone calls, including those between inmates and their attorneys — and then sell that information — that has drawn heavy criticism from Congressmen and has resulted in numerous lawsuits against the company.
Last May, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden went public with allegations that Securus was using its prisons communications systems to capture location information from cell phones used to make calls to prisoners. It was then selling that information — and selling a real-time tracking service — to law enforcement and other agencies in an apparent violation of federal laws, which require a warrant to obtain such information.
Additionally, through its contacts at various major telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, Securus was able to purchase location data on thousands of other cell phones, which it would then track illegally and allow its government customers to purchase that information as well. That would be in direct violation of the telecommunication companies’ responsibility to be the sole provider and protector of such information.
Securus requires its customers to provide a warrant, but company representatives told Wyden that no one ever checked to make sure that the documents uploaded were actual warrants. And in some cases, they were not.
Wyden was so disturbed by what he found that he wrote to the FCC asking that it investigate Securus and its ability to obtain such information and share it with law enforcement and others.
“This practice skirts wireless carriers’ legal obligation to be the sole conduit by which the government conducts surveillance of Americans’ phone records,” Wyden wrote.
Not surprisingly, Securus has been targeted by hackers, who last year obtained a trove of personal information collected by the company. The hackers, in a demonstration of Securus’ lax security, didn’t publish the information, but instead sent it to a tech website.
But that is not Securus’ only legal issues.
In 2017, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company over its practices of tacking on fees and charging exorbitant rates to prisoners and their family members, essentially preying upon desperate people who had no other option.
One such fee was a 4-percent “location services” fee, which essentially charged prisoners for the costs of collecting the location data that Securus would later sell. The company said it obtained the permission to collect the data from those involved in the calls by way of a pre-recorded message that had the participants press a designated number to accept the terms. A process which left prisoners and their loved ones with the option of disclosing their location data or not speaking for months on end.
“The state should not deal with Securus, a company that takes advantage of vulnerable people,” said Brock Boone, a staff attorney for the Alabama ACLU. “Securus has a track record of maximizing their profits on the backs of these vulnerable people in a captive market.”
And it gets worse.
In numerous prisons across the country, Securus has ended the in-person prison visit in favor of the $12.99-per-20-minute video call. That has left inmates and their families crying foul and going broke. And it has, of course, resulted in more lawsuits.
“Telephone calls with family and friends are typically the only way people maintain a sense of what it is to be human while being locked in cages in Alabama prisons, and as everyone knows Alabama has some of the most dangerous and inhumane prisons in the country,” Boone said. “So as if the sentences and conditions are not the most egregious in the country, now Securus will make sure the most vulnerable will not be able to afford a phone call to wish their child or mother a happy birthday.”
The Contract Review Committee meets at 8:30 Thursday morning. The specifics of the contract weren’t immediately available. A spokesman for ADOC acknowledged receiving a request for comment from APR, but the department did not issue a response.