Pluralistic: California to smash prison e-profiteers (08 May 2023)

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A prison cell. Behind the bars is the bear from the California state flag. There is an old-fashioned telephone headset near his ear, such that he appears to be making a call.

California to smash prison e-profiteers (permalink)

It's a double-whammy that defines 21st century American life: a corporation gets caught doing something terrible, exploitative or even murderous, and a government agency steps in – only to discover that there's nothing it can do, because Reagan/Trump/Clinton/Bush I/Bush II deregulated that industry and stripped the agency of enforcement powers.

If you'd like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here's a link to it on, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

Man, that feels awful. The idea that extremists gutted our democratically accountable institutions so that there's nothing they can do, no matter how egregious a corporation's conduct is so demoralizing. Makes me feel like giving up.

But the law is a complex and mysterious thing. Regulators aren't actually helpless. There are authorities, powers and systems that the corporate wreckers passed over, failed to notice, or failed to neuter. Take Section 5 of the FTC Act, which gives the Commission broad powers to prevent "unfair and deceptive" practices. Since the 1970s, the FTC just acted like this didn't exist, even though it was right there all along, between Section 4 and Section 6.

Then, under the directorship of FTC chair Lina Khan, Section 5 was rediscovered and mobilized, first to end the practice of noncompete "agreements" for workers nationwide:

A new breed of supremely competent, progressive regulators are dusting off those old lawbooks and figuring out what powers they have, and they're using those powers to Get Stuff Done. It's like that old joke:

Office manager: $75 to kick the photocopier?

Repair person: No, it's $5 to kick the photocopier, $70 to know where to kick it.

There's a whole generation of expert photocopier-kickers in public life, and they've got their boots on:

This is the upside of technocracy – where you have people who are appointed to do good things, and who want to do good things, and who figure out how to do good things. There are dormant powers everywhere in law. Remember when Southwest Air stranded a million passengers over Christmas week and Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg responded by talking sternly about doing better, but without opening any enforcement actions against SWA?

At the time, Buttigieg's defenders said that was all he could do: "Pete isn't the boss of Southwest's IT department, you know!" He's not – but he is in possession of identical powers to the FTC to regulate "unfair and deceptive" practices, thanks to USC40 Section 41712(a), which copy-pastes the language from Article 5 of the FTC Act into the DOT's legislative basis:

The failures of SWA were a long time coming, and were driven by the company's shifting of costs from shareholders to employees and fliers. SWA schedules many flights for which they have no aircraft or crew, and when the time to fly those jets comes, the company simply cancels the emptiest flights. This is great for SWA's shareholders, who don't have to pay for fuel and crew for half-empty planes – but it's terrible for crew and fliers.

What's more, selling tickets for planes that don't exist is plainly unfair and deceptive. A good photocopier-kicker in charge of the DOT would have arrived with a "first 100 days" plan that included opening hearings into this practice, as a prelude to directly regulating this conduct out of existence, averting the worst aviation scheduling crisis in US history. That's what Buttigieg's critics wanted from him: a competent assessment of his powers, followed by the vigorous use of those powers to protect the American people.

One domain that's been in sore need of a photocopier-kicker for years is prison tech. America ("the land of the free") incarcerates more people than any nation in the history of the world – more than the USSR, more than China, more than Apartheid-era South Africa.

For corporate prison profiteers, those prisoners are a literal captive audience, easy pickings for gouging on telephone calls, books, music, and food. For years, companies like Securus have been behind an incredibly imaginative array of sadistic tactics that strip prisoners of the contact, education and nutrition that governments normally provide to incarcerated people, and then sells those prisoners and their families poor substitutes for those necessities at markups that cost many multiples of the equivalent services in the free world.

Think of prisons that reduce the amount of food served to sub-starvation levels, then sell food at high markups in the prison commissary. For prisoners whose families can afford commissary fees, this is merely extortion. But for prisoners who don't have anyone to top up their commissary accounts, it's literal starvation.

This is the shape of every prison profiteer's grift: take something vital away and then sell it back at a massive markup, dooming the prisoners who can't afford it. The most obvious way to gouge prisoners is by charging huge markups for phone calls. Prisoners who can afford to pay many dollars per minute can stay in touch with their families, while the rest rot in isolation.

In 2015, the FCC tried to halt this practice, passing an order capping the price of calls, but in 2017, the DC District Court struck down the order, ruling that the FCC couldn't regulate in-state call tariffs, which are the majority of prison calls:

This was a bonanza for prison profiteers. Companies like Jpay (now a division of Securus) cranked up the price of prisoners' calls. At the same time, dark-money lobbying campaigns urged prisons to get rid of their in-person visitation programs in the name of "safety":

Not just visitation: prisons shuttered their libraries and banned shipments of letters, cards and books – again, in the same of "safety." Jpay an its competitors stepped in with "free tablets" – cheap, badly made Chinese tablets. Instead of checking out books from the prison library or having them mailed to you by a friend or family member, prisoners had to buy DRM-locked ebooks at many multiples of the outside world price (these same prices were slapped on public domain books ganked from Project Gutenberg):

Instead of getting letters and cards from your family members and friends, you had to pay to look at scans of them, buying "virtual stamps" that had to accompany every page (they even charged by the "page" for text messages):

Enshittification is my name for service-decay, where companies that have some kind of lock-in make things worse and worse for their customers, secure in the knowledge that they'll keep paying because the lock-in keeps them from leaving. When your customers are literally locked in (that is, behind bars), the enshittification comes fast and furious.

Securus/Jpay and its competitors found all kinds of ways to make their services worse, like harvesting recordings of their calls to produce biometric voice-prints that could be used to track prisoners after they were released:

Of course, once the prison phone-carriers started harvesting prisoners' phone calls, it was inevitable that they would leak those calls, including intimate calls with family members and privileged calls with lawyers:

Prison-tech companies know they can extract huge fortunes from their captive audience, so they are shameless about offering bribes (ahem, "profit-sharing") to prison authorities and sheriffs' offices to switch vendors. When that happens, prisoners inevitably suffer, as happened in 2018, when Florida state prisons changed tech providers and wiped out $11.8m worth of prisoners purchased media – every song prisoners had paid for:

As bad as these deals are for prisoners, they're great for jailers, who are personally and institutionally enriched by prison-tech giants. This is textbook corruption, in which small groups of individuals are enriched while vast, diffuse costs are extracted from large groups of people. Naturally, the deals themselves are swathed in secrecy, and public records requests for their details are met with blank, illegal refusals:

The "shitty technology adoption curve" predicts that technological harms that are first visited upon prisoners and other low-privilege people will gradually work its way up the privilege gradient:

Securus powered up the Shitty Tech Adoption Curve. They don't just spy on and exploit prisoners – they leveraged that surveillance empire into a line of product lines that touch us all. Securus transformed their prisoner telephone tracking business into an off-the-books, warrantless tracking tool that cops everywhere use to illegally track people:

In other words, our jails and prisons are incubators that breed digital pathogens that infect all of us eventually. It's past time we got in the exterminators and flushed out those nests.

That's where California's new photocopier-kickers come in. Like many states, California has a Public Utility Commission (PUC), which regulates private companies that provide utilities, like telecoms. That means that the state of California can reach into every jail and prison in the state and grab the prison profiteers by the throats and toss 'em out the window.

Writing in The American Prospect, Kalena Thomhave does an excellent job on the technical ins-and-outs of calling on PUCs to regulate prison-tech, both in California and in other states where PUCs haven't yet been neutered or eliminated by deregulation-crazed Republicans:

Thomhave describes how California's county sheriffs have waxed fat on kickbacks from the prison-tech sector: "for example, the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office receives 25 percent of GTL/ViaPath’s gross revenue on video calls made from tablets." Small wonder that sheriffs' offices lobby against free calls from jail, claiming that prisoners' phone tariffs are needed to fund their operations.

It's true that the majority of this kickback money (51%) goes into "inmate welfare funds," but these funds don't have to go to inmates – they can and are diverted to "maintenance, salaries, travel, and equipment like security cameras."

But limiting contact between prisoners and their families in order to pay for operating expenses is a foolish bargain. Isolation from friends and family is closely linked to recidivism. If we want prisoners to live productive lives after their serve their time, we should maximize their contact with the outside, not link it to their families' ability to spend 50 times more per minute than anyone making a normal call.

The covid lockdowns were a boon to prison-tech profiteers, whose video-calling products were used to replace in-person visits. But when pandemic restrictions lifted, the in-person visits didn't come back. Instead, jails continued to ban in-person visits and replace them with expensive video calls.

Even with new power, the FCC can't directly regulate this activity, especially not in county jails. But PUCs can. Not every state has a PUC: ALEC, the right-wing legislation factory, has pushed laws that gut or eliminate PUCs across the country:

But California has a PUC, and it is gathering information now in advance of an order that could rein in these extractive businesses and halt the shitty tech adoption curve in its tracks:

That's some top-notch photocopier-kicking, right there.

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