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A Prison Telecom in Sheep’s Clothing

On April 6, 2016, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai conducted a Field Hearing in Columbia, South Carolina on the subject of contraband cell phones in prisons and jails.

The panel did not address questions submitted prior to the hearing by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News. Those questions dealt with the companies involved in the development of new technologies to detect contraband cell phones – including Inmate Calling Service (ICS) providers that have price-gouged prisoners and their families for decades with exorbitant phone rates and fees.

HRDC had inquired about the cost/benefit of cell phone detection services, and whether the cost for cell phone detection is passed on to prisoners and their families through inflated ICS phone rates. In the latter regard, HRDC inquired, “To what extent is the effort to eliminate cell phone use by prisoners a ploy to increase revenues through the government monopoly ICS phone system and its attendant commission kickbacks to government agencies?”

Additional questions raised by HRDC involved the smuggling of contraband cell phones by prison and jail staff, and whether proposed jamming technologies would affect people located near the correctional facilities where they are implemented.

“While Commissioner Pai stated his position regarding contraband cell phones in proceedings related to comprehensive reform of the prison phone industry, seemingly to imply the issues are related, it is imperative that any discussion about this issue address trafficking of contraband by staff as the crux of the problem,” HRDC wrote. “News reports nationwide are replete with examples of prison guards and other prison employees and contractors smuggling cell phones to prisoners, often in exchange for bribes.”

Not only were the questions submitted by HRDC ignored during the Field Hearing, but one of the speakers was employed by Securus Technologies, one of the nation’s largest ICS providers. Dan Wigger, a panelist selected to discuss Managed Access Systems, was introduced in the hearing’s agenda as “the Vice President and Managing Director for solution vendor CellBlox.” While that may be true, the agenda failed to mention that CellBlox had been purchased by Securus Technologies in January 2015, and that Securus announced it had hired Wigger in March 2015 for “day-to-day management of our Managed Access Systems (MAS) business that installs proprietary high tech software, preventing contraband wireless device use in prisons and jails in the United States.”

Wigger’s presentation at the FCC Field Hearing organized by Commissioner Pai – who has consistently voted against prison phone reforms – was little more than Securus advertising its MAS product at taxpayer expense. The panel’s non-disclosure of Wigger’s connection with Securus misled the public, media and government officials into thinking they were hearing unbiased and objective testimony, when in fact they were hearing from a representative of an ICS provider that has a financial interest in blocking contraband cell phones. When prisoners’ access to cell phones is restricted, the use of the prison’s telephone system increases – which results in larger profits for the ICS provider.

The failure to disclose Wigger’s affiliation with Securus at the FCC Field Hearing is just another example of the lack of transparency and openness that permeates the prison phone industry. HRDC submitted a formal inquiry regarding Wigger’s employment with Securus to Commissioner Pai in an April 7, 2016 letter filed on the FCC docket. While Pai’s chief of staff, Matthew Berry, was quoted in a news article stating it was “a public record that Wigger’s employer, Cellblox, is owned by Securus,” the Commissioner did not respond to HRDC’s inquiry or explain why Wigger’s affiliation with Securus was not openly disclosed during his presentation at the Field Hearing.

Meanwhile, the rate caps ordered by the FCC remain subject to a stay issued by the D.C. Court of Appeals in March 2016, shortly before they were to go into effect. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.36].

 Sources: HRDC comments filed with the FCC,

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