NBPA members went on a three-day playoff strike in August 2020, triggered by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was left paralyzed, shot seven times as he leaned into a car. The strike resulted in an agreement between the league and players to establish a social-justice coalition and associated advertising with a focus on civic engagement, ballot access and reform of police and the criminal justice system. Franchises that own their own arenas pledged to “work with local elections officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 election.”
Yet the players and league were strangely silent about one of the owners exploiting incarcerated individuals for profit.
As reported in The American Prospect, Tom Gores, the owner of the Detroit Pistons NBA franchise, is a billionaire who founded Platinum Equity, a private equity firm with about 40 portfolio companies and $23 billion under management.
One of the companies in Platinum Equity’s portfolio is Aventiv, one of the largest companies providing telephone and money transfer services to prisoners. Operating under the name of its Securus Technologies and JPay units, Aventiv gouges prisoners—who are disproportionately people of color and often poor—for the basic communication services they need to stay in touch with friends and families.
Securus serves 1.2 million prisoners in North America. As late as February 2020, Securus charged Arkansas prisoners $24.82 for a 15-minute phone call. The company claims to have since capped its rates at $13,65 for a 15-minute phone call from a jail or prison, with an average of $3.57. Even so, a daily phone call at the average rate would set poor prisoners and their families back over $110 a month, a price few can afford.
The gouging of prisoners for phone calls is especially galling as the cost of free world phone calls has dropped a tiny fraction of a penny per minute. Securus and other prison phone companies claim they incur extra costs for recording and monitoring the calls, yet the prices charged can hardly be justified by the extra costs. Indeed, the fact that in 2018 the Illinois prison system signed a contract with Securus to provide phone services at 1¢ a minute — which still allows Securus to turn a profit — gives an upper limit to the true cost of providing phone services behind bars.
In more recent years, Securus has expanded into providing video visitation services. It charges up to $1 per minute for visitation that was previously free. At the same time, Securus lobbies jails and prisons to end in-person visitation to increase demand for its expensive video-visitation product. Some jails and prisons with video visitation require visitors to come to the facility and use their equipment for the video visit, eliminating any potential improvement in convenience offered by the technology. Those visitors still have the hassle of travelling to a jail or prison and being searched without the benefit of seeing their loved one in person—and get to pay for it.
Aventiv’s JPay unit charges prisoners’ families high fees to send money to their commissary or telephone accounts. A $200 transfer can cost $13. JPay also provides services allowing emails to be sent to prisoners at a charge of 35¢ per page for a service that is free to the nonincarcerated. In some prisons and jails JPay provides tablets, MP3 players, and/or email sending services to prisoners, all at hefty fees compared to free-world costs.
Just as some jails and prisons eliminated in-person visitation to force prisoners’ families to use Securus video visitation, some jails and prisons have banned greeting cards, postcards, colored paper, typewritten paper, colored envelopes, and/or books and magazines, making the claim that the purpose of the ban is prevent drug-laced correspondence from being mailed to prisoners. The effect of the bans has not been to eliminate drugs from prisons and jails as they are frequently smuggled by staff, but to force prisoners to use the expensive and highly profitable JPay tablets for their mail and reading. Many jails and prisons are also complicit in that they accept “commissions,” kick-backs by another name, from JPay and Securus, leaving them with no incentive to seek the lower fees which would lower the “commissions.”
Another service many prisoners are forced to partake in is the JPay release card, a kind of debit card issued to prisoners released from jails and prisons loaded with the funds remaining in their commissary accounts. Many of the cards carry excessive “account maintenance” fees or $2.50 a week, even if unused, and high fees for using any ATM other than at the issuing bank.
Gores lives in Los Angeles and has an estimated fortune of $5.7 billion. He was on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which has recently come under pressure to remove him due to his firm’s “deliberate exploitation of Black, Brown, and economically distressed communities” since Platinum purchased Securus in 2017. Gores stepped down from the board in October 2020.
“While people across the nation demand racial justice, Tom Gores continues to amass wealth and benefit from a system that exploits Black people and profits from our pain. Put simply, Tom Gores is a prison profiteer who has no place on the board of a prestigious public museum like the LACMA,” stated a letter to the board from the Oakland-based civil rights group Color of Change and New York nonprofit Worth Rises, which seeks to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.
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