By Robert Pickens
February 22, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
Technologies used by prisons across the country are under attack — not by hackers, but by a small group of critics and activists distorting the facts about products that benefit incarcerated people and keep the public safe. This is especially dangerous because these technologies are the primary way that many of America’s 2.2 million incarcerated citizens communicate with loved ones or access educational services.
My company, Securus Technologies, produces digital tablets and kiosks that can operate safely inside prisons. They allow incarcerated people to make phone calls, send emails and use video chat – options that are particularly valuable for those with families far away. These devices also offer free classes that can help you get a GED or a college degree, which 80,000 individuals have already used to prepare for jobs after their sentences are complete.
Our devices are built to be shatterproof, so they can’t be used as weapons. And they’re equipped with security software that helps officers detect if someone is trying to harass a victim or witness, plan a prison break, or smuggle drugs or weapons into a corrections facility.
As a result, our devices are a lot more complex – and more expensive to produce and operate – than the phones and tablets most Americans use every day. They also require 21st century networks to be installed in 20th century prisons, which means millions of dollars of investments in infrastructure and ongoing maintenance. And that’s money that most corrections departments, after years of budget cutbacks, simply don’t have.
Therefore, instead of paying for these products with taxpayer money, companies like mine cover the costs. We then charge fees for using some of our services, including entertainment products like movies and music, to help pay back the investment. We operate on extremely thin margins, which allows us to keep our services affordable for as many users as possible. And we still find ways to return a portion of the proceeds to the correctional facilities, which helps them pay for addiction services, job training, and other important but underfunded programs.
A small but vocal group of critics have been engaged in a misinformation campaign about the costs of our services. They use false or misleading data, often scouring the country for outlier rates that apply to less than one hundredth of 1 percent of our services, then presenting them as though they apply to millions of users.
In reality, the average cost of a phone call for one of our users is just $0.15 a minute. We offer free credits and discounts around major holidays to ensure families stay connected when it matters most. And last year we gave away over 785,000 free calls – more than 3.7 million minutes of call time – often during booking, to help individuals arrange for bail and be quickly released.
The critics believe that, with enough political pressure, corrections departments will simply pay out of pocket and make all these services – phone calls and video visits, movies and music – free and unlimited for all. But the reality is, these services are not legally required in prisons. And they are generally not considered essential from a life and safety perspective. Without the revenue needed to fund these services, and the security tools that allow them to be offered safely, many correctional facilities will have no choice but to eliminate them altogether.
As is so often the case, it’s incarcerated individuals and their families who would lose out. But America loses as well. We’re currently facing a crisis of recidivism – 75 percent of formerly incarcerated people end up getting re-arrested within five years of their release. Education and communication with friends and family have been proven to reduce recidivism. By robbing people of these services, we’d rob them of the chance to turn their lives around. And we’d rob every American of the millions in taxpayer funds wasted every year on reincarceration.
Technology can play a critical role in making our nation’s prison system both safer and more just. Without it, our correctional facilities will take a giant leap backwards. That’s why we’ll continue to work with all stakeholders – including advocates and policymakers – who want to ensure incarcerated individuals have real access to the services they need.
Robert Pickens is the CEO of Securus Technologies.
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