The prison phone industry is exploitative enough, with the private contractors that offer the service charging as much as $25 for a 15-minute call. But it could soon get worse.
Securus Technologies , one of the biggest names in the business, is attempting to acquire a smaller competitor, ICSolutions. And if the merger goes through, the industry will be dominated by just two providers.
That could mean higher prices for the often poor and vulnerable families wrapped up in the prison system, and more clout for a company with a sordid history. The Federal Communications Commission should step in and block the acquisition.
The financial and emotional toll of exorbitant fees is well documented. Here in Massachusetts, four plaintiffs, including a pair of inmates, recently filed suit against Securus and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson over the high cost of prison phone calls.
There was the 95-year-old mother who had to choose between paying medical bills and talking to her son, an inmate at the Bristol County House of Correction. And there was the teenage daughter of inmate Michael T. Ray, who had to rush through conversations with her father so the calls didn’t get too expensive.
“She would want to tell him about her achievements at school and he’d say, ‘Put your mother on the phone. I need to talk to her,’ ” said Kellie Pearson, the girl’s mother and Ray’s fiancee, in an interview with the Globe this spring. “It was crushing to her.”
The bills became so overwhelming that, eventually, Pearson had to tell Ray she couldn’t talk to him so frequently. He exploded and, a day later, hung himself in his cell.
Securus has engaged in some questionable corporate behavior of late. Last year, the company paid a $1.7 million fine for misleading the FCC about a transfer of ownership. And in Massachusetts, the firm has attempted to avoid state regulation.
The company holds contracts with the state’s Department of Correction and nine of the county sheriffs’ offices, making it the largest player in the local market by far. And in a recent letter to the FCC, Attorney General Maura Healey warned that Securus’s acquisition of ICSolutions “will further weaken our state’s ability to negotiate for calling rates affordable for inmates and their families.”
Protecting those inmates and their families is a worthy endeavor, in and of itself. But the broader public would benefit too. Research shows that prisoners who remain connected to their families are less likely to commit crimes when they return to the outside world. A weak connection is bad for everyone.