Jails banned visits in “quid pro quo” with prison phone companies, lawsuits say

The bars of a jail cell are pictured along with a man's hand turning a key in the lock of the cell door.

Getty Images | Charles O’Rear

Two lawsuits filed by a civil rights group allege that county jails in Michigan banned in-person visits in order to maximize revenue from voice and video calls as part of a “quid pro quo kickback scheme” with prison phone companies.

Civil Rights Corps filed the lawsuits on March 15 against the county governments, two county sheriffs, and two prison phone companies. The suits filed in county courts seek class-action status on behalf of people unable to visit family members detained in the local jails, including children who have been unable to visit their parents.

Defendants in one lawsuit include St. Clair County Sheriff Mat King, prison phone company Securus Technologies, and Securus owner Platinum Equity. In the other lawsuit, defendants include Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson and prison phone company ViaPath Technologies. ViaPath was formerly called Global Tel*Link Corporation (GTL), and the lawsuit primarily refers to the company as GTL.

Each year, thousands of people spend months in the county jails, the lawsuit said. Many of the detainees have not been convicted of any crime and are awaiting trial; if they are convicted and receive long sentences, they are transferred to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The named plaintiffs in both cases include family members, including children identified by their initials.

“Hundreds of jails” eliminated visits

The Michigan counties are far from alone in implementing visitation bans, Civil Rights Corps said in a lawsuit announcement. “Across the United States, hundreds of jails have eliminated in-person family visits over the last decade,” the group said, adding:

Why has this happened? The answer highlights a profound flaw in how decisions too often get made in our legal system: for-profit jail telecom companies realized that they could earn more profit from phone and video calls if jails eliminated free in-person visits for families. So the companies offered sheriffs and county jails across the country a deal: if you eliminate family visits, we’ll give you a cut of the increased profits from the larger number of calls. This led to a wave across the country, as local jails sought to supplement their budgets with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from some of the poorest families in our society.

St. Clair County implemented its family visitation ban in September 2017, “prohibiting people from visiting their family members detained inside the county jail,” Civil Rights Corps alleged. This “decision was part of a quid pro quo kickback scheme with Securus Technologies, a for-profit company that contracts with jails to charge the families of incarcerated persons exorbitant rates to communicate with one another through ‘services’ such as low-quality phone and video calls,” the lawsuit said.

Under the contract, “Securus pays the County 50 percent of the $12.99 price tag for every 20-minute video call and 78 percent of the $0.21 per minute cost of every phone call,” the lawsuit said. The contract has “a guarantee that Securus would pay the County at least $190,000 each year,” the St. Clair County lawsuit said.

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