PLN criticizes non-disclosure of Securus employee at FCC hearing on cell phones
FCC’s Pai Dinged Over Panelist’s Prison Telecom Ties
By Michael Macagnone
Law360, Washington (April 8, 2016, 7:37 PM ET) -- A prisoner rights advocacy group criticized Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai for not disclosing a panelist at a Wednesday event’s ties to a prison telecommunications company Friday, saying it misled the public about the panelist’s intentions.
The Human Rights Defense Center said in an ex parte letter to the agency that Pai and the organizers of the hearing on contraband cellphone use at US prisons should have disclosed the fact that panelist Dan Wigger’s employer, Cellblox, is owned by inmate calling services company Securus Technologies. Wigger is a vice president at Cellblox, a company that makes managed access services — technology that can help track and block cellphones — according to the event agenda.
“As you know from questions submitted by HRDC prior to the Field Hearing, we are very concerned that [inmate calling service] providers, including Securus, will use contraband cellphones detections as yet another way to price gouge prisoners and their families as they have been allowed to do in the prison phone industry for decades,” the letter said.
The letter pointed to Securus' stake in opposing prison call rate caps implemented by the FCC last year, which would allegedly impacted the company's bottom line.
At Wednesday’s hearing in Columbia, South Carolina, Pai and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called the problem of contraband cellphones severe, saying inmates can obtain phones through any number of means, including by drone drops, and regularly use them to harass and order hits on corrections officers, and direct gang activity.
Present at the hearing were industry representatives like Wigger, state officials and others, including an officer who survived being shot six times after an inmate used a contraband phone to order a hit on him. Pai, who also toured a prison in Bishopville, South Carolina, on Wednesday to view contraband phones, said “the status quo isn’t acceptable.”
Proposed reforms included streamlining FCC review of spectrum leases between wireless providers and facilities, as well as enabling the two sides to more easily work together on identifying and deactivating the phones, Pai said.
Haley said she has 900 openings for corrections officers that she can’t fill due in part to the threat posed by contraband cellphones, despite efforts to implement detection measures. She should be able to jam signals at prisons, she said, blaming the industry for not helping.
The Human Rights Defense Center’s executive director Paul Wright, who has backed the FCC’s push to regulate prison calling rates, told Law360 Friday that unless attendees knew Cellblox’s ties to Securus, they would not have known the additional financial incentive from one of the witnesses. Wigger was one of eight panelists at Wednesday’s event.
“This is one of the things that if taken as a whole is part of the problem with the prison telephone industry, the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability,” Wright said.
Responding to the complaint, Commissioner Pai’s chief of staff Matthew Berry said it is a public record that Wigger’s employer, Cellblox, is owned by Securus and sells the kinds of technology discussed at the hearing, and the issues surrounding prison phone rates were not discussed at all at Wednesday’s event.
“His employer was very clearly disclosed and it is difficult to understand how his direct employer’s financial interest is any different from the owner of that employer’s financial interest,” Berry said.
Berry said it was clear in Wigger’s testimony and papers accompanying the hearing that he was advocating some of the same kinds of solutions his company sold.
“It is abundantly clear that this witness was sharing his expertise but also representing a company that was selling certain products and anyone watching the hearing would be able to weigh his testimony with that in mind,” he said.
Representatives for Securus and Cellblox could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.