Unlike many government bureaucrats, Mignon Clyburn, a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), doesn’t only pay attention to data and documents. She also understands the importance of a simple phone call for the millions of people incarcerated in the United States.
At a hearing before the congressional committee that oversees the FCC, Commissioner Clyburn spoke proudly of the body’s recent vote to slash the cost of phone calls from prisons and jails in the United States. She was moved by the case of a young woman living in New Mexico, Jazlin Mendoza, whose family has spent an astounding $28,000 so that she could have a weekly five-minute conversation with her father in prison.
Securus Technologies, one of the major players in what is a billion-dollar industry, disputed this claim. On November 20, Securus CEO Richard A. Smith sent a letter to US Representatives Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and Anna Eshoo (D-California), who head the oversight committee. He challenged the veracity of Clyburn’s testimony, as well as Mendoza’s story. These were “sensational accusations,” he said.
The FCC’s intervention is the result of 15 years of legal action by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and grassroots organizing by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and other groups. The FCC vote, which took place on October 22, caps calls from prisons at a maximum of 11 cents per minute. Calls from jails are set between 14 to 22 cents per minute, depending on the size. The ruling will take effect in 2016. When it does, the cost of calls will be cut in half at most prisons and jails across the country.
Ever since the FCC’s vote, the private companies who provide these calls have been throwing a fit. The dog with the loudest bark has been Securus’ Richard A. Smith. He vowed Securus would take legal action to block the vote.
In his letter to Walden and Eshoo, Smith challenged the facts set forth by the FCC and Clyburn, as well as Mendoza’s experience. I wrote about the 21-year-old in an earlier article for Truthout. A video of Mendoza telling her story is available online. It was produced by Generation Justice, a youth media project she works with in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This was the first time she had shared with her friends, and the world, that her father is in prison. Now for doing so, she has been ridiculed by the head of a powerful company.
“It is sad,” said Roberta Rael, who is the executive director of Generation Justice, and a mentor to Mendoza. “The CEO of Securus, who has profited off of the distress of families, is picking on a young woman who had the courage to speak up about her life experience in hopes of creating change for other children. Mr. Smith’s misplaced assumptions are just a small political ploy for Securus to try to punish Commissioner Clyburn for her leadership on one of the most compassionate FCC votes in history.”
In his letter, Smith makes two false assumptions. First, he assumes Mendoza’s father is held in a state prison, when he is actually held in a federal prison where calls are more expensive. Second, he claims that the phone calls in question lasted five minutes each (the length of time Mendoza spoke with her father), but, as Mendoza clearly states, she could only talk to her father for five minutes because her grandparents also wanted to speak with him. As a report released by the Ella Baker Center points out, families often share the burden of maintaining contact with an incarcerated loved one.
Smith knows very well that people with incarcerated family members sometimes pay tens of thousands of dollars just to talk on the phone. Indeed, another person I interviewed, Miguel Saucedo of Chicago, told me his family has spent $20,000 to talk to his brother, who is serving a long-term sentence.
Alex Friedmann of the Human Rights Defense Center, and a member of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, has followed Securus for years. “Beyond individual cases,” he told Truthout, “Securus is trying to divert attention from the larger issue – that the prison phone industry has systematically exploited prisoners’ families for decades by charging exorbitant phone rates.”
Smith has a knack for hyperbole. After the FCC imposed new rules, he claimed the ability to monitor phone calls would be compromised. He predicted blood would be flowing in the streets: “The lives of witnesses, judges, victims and others will be lost due to the inability to provide the technology that prisons and jails need to keep us safe.” Ostensibly, there are people listening in on phone calls to prevent criminal activity, although much of this process has been digitized.
In the past, Smith has portrayed Securus as a valiant defender of public safety, as important as police officers and firefighters. Yet it appears Securus can’t even keep its own data safe with the news of a recent leak of some 70 million phone calls. The anonymous hacker released routine calls by people discussing daily activities, as well as thousands of conversations that are supposed to be protected by attorney-client privilege.
In 2014, Securus made a record $114 million from these calls. The FCC’s decision threatens to cut into their profits. Smith is more concerned with the company’s bottom line than the well-being of those incarcerated and their families.
The latest of Smith’s rants turns out to be baseless. Before telling others to stick to the facts, he might check his own. The FCC, and Commissioner Clyburn, should be praised for reining in these predatory companies.