The Monroe Correctional Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Monroe Correctional Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cost-saving prison phone switch hits ‘road bumps’ in Monroe, elsewhere

Phone calls from prison used to cost 11 cents a minute. Now through Securus, they’re cheaper, but the connection — a “lifeline” for many — is poor.

MONROE — Jacob Schmitt used to spend hours every day waiting to call his wife.

Prisoners at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where Schmitt is serving time for theft and burglary, used to have to line up in a common area to make phone calls. It was an “enormous struggle,” he said.

“The noise, the congestion was a nightmare,” Schmitt said.

So he was excited when he heard he wouldn’t have to do that anymore.

Last May, the state Department of Corrections announced it was changing technology vendors at all of its prisons, including Monroe, to Securus Technologies, one of the country’s largest prison telecom companies.

Previously, the agency contracted with JPay for most communication services. Phone calls went through Global Tel Link. Both are prison technology companies.

Corrections boasted the new contract was “one of the most ambitious technology and cost-savings initiatives in the nation between a corrections technology provider and a state Department of Corrections.”

The department touted lower rates and, crucially, free personal tablets that can make phone calls.

A year later, some incarcerated people and their loved ones say they’ve been let down. They complain of constant technical difficulties, files disappearing and poor customer service.

Schmitt’s enthusiasm has been dampened by frustration with phone calls breaking up on the new tablet.

“There’s always something wrong with them,” he said.

The cost of connection

Securus has faced lawsuits in other states for recording confidential conversations between lawyers and clients and overcharging for phone calls.

Prison technology companies wield tremendous influence over prisoners’ lives because they control many of the ways incarcerated people can connect with loved ones on the outside. Phone calls, video visits and even emails come at a cost — and that burden often falls on family.

Fees have generally gone down since the change to Securus.

Phone calls through Global Tel Link used to cost 11 cents per minute plus taxes. Now they’re 5 cents per minute, plus two free 20 minute phone calls a week.

Video visits through JPay were $7.95 for 30 minutes. Through Securus, the price is $4.95 and four free visits a month.

Email credits cost the same with both JPay and Securus: 6 credits cost $2, while 60 cost $10. Securus also gives prisoners 55 free “stamps” for emails a month. Those costs may come with additional fees.

JPay and Securus are owned by the same Texas-based parent company, Aventiv Technologies.

‘Unexpected challenges’

Monroe prison spokesperson Kristi Webb said in an email that “although we expect road bumps, there are several unexpected challenges that still haven’t been resolved.”

Those challenges include tablets that have “had numerous issues and have to be replaced more frequently than they should, leaving individuals without tablets until the repairs or replacements can be completed by Securus,” she said.

Another issue Webb cited is Wi-Fi “access points not providing service to all cells” as required by the agency’s contract with Securus.

She noted, however, that prisoners are able to communicate with their families more now that they have the tablets.

Jade Trombetta, a Securus spokesperson noted the “unique features” Securus tablets offer, including educational content, entertainment and job search tools.

Transitioning the state Corrections system, she said, cost Securus over $5.5 million. Infrastructure upgrades were completed in April, she said.

A rocky transition

Schmitt’s wife, Melissa, is the co-founder of Adopt an Inmate, a prison pen pal nonprofit.

When you’re in prison, she said, “any kind of connection is literally your lifeline.”

Because Adopt an Inmate has participants all over the country, she’s seen switches to Securus in other states. In Washington and elsewhere, pen pals were unprepared for the transition, she said. Many people on the outside struggled to transfer over their old accounts, which contained contacts, email history and email credits.

Some people just gave up and created new accounts, losing all their history.

Trombetta said Securus “distributed emails to family and friends providing instructions on how to transition from a JPay” to a Securus account.

Securus tax rates are also high. For a recent purchase of email credits, Securus charged a $1.21 sales tax for a $7 purchase, or a rate of about 17.28%.

The sales tax rate in Washington is 6.5%. Even accounting for local tax rates, no location in the state has a rate as high as 17%.

“Securus is compliant for all Washington State rates and taxes,” Trombetta said, adding the sales tax “includes state sales tax, county sales tax, and a local utility gross receipts tax.”

Meanwhile, many families who had previously purchased tablets through JPay for incarcerated loved ones haven’t gotten them back, advocate Kehaulani Walker said.

Walker is the founder of Families of the Incarcerated, a group supporting people with loved ones behind bars. She bought two tablets from JPay for her husband, Matthew, who is incarcerated.

He said he filled out a form “a long time ago” to have the tablets mailed back to Walker.

She hasn’t received them, she said.

Trombetta said that for people with previously purchased tablets, Securus “communicated a process to have their tablet mailed to a loved one.”

‘Captive consumers’

Bryan Powers has been dealing with audio problems since he was first issued a tablet in February. When he tried to make calls, Powers could hear people on the other end, but they couldn’t hear him.

He got a replacement tablet. Then another. Then another — five in total. The same issue happened on each one. His phone app still only works about half the time, said Powers, who is serving time for murder at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

He’s also unable to view videos his family sends him because of an app malfunctioning.

It’s frustrating, Powers said, because the incarcerated are “captive consumers who rely on this stuff.”

Securus representatives visit prison facilities, but inconsistently, he said.

At the Monroe prison, Webb said, “we frequently have more than 50 individuals” asking to meet with the Securus rep each week.

“Everybody talks to us about their frustration with the product,” said Caitlin Roberston, director of the state Office of Corrections Ombuds.

Phone connections are inconsistent, she said, with “dead zones” in certain areas of prisons.

Getting a broken tablet replaced is difficult, she said, a complaint others echoed. Headphones people use to talk on the tablets are also breaking.

In the spring, Webb said, “Securus informed the population that they would no longer be replacing headphones” and people would need to buy their own replacements.

Trombetta said if headphones break “a customer service representative will help provide a resolution,” which could include a replacement. She did not say whether the replacement would be free of cost.

‘Not seamless’

Distributing the tablets to everyone has also “been a very slow rollout,” Robertson said, noting “the transition to this new system was not seamless.”

“Supply chain issues have impacted technology and hardware providers through the COVID-19 pandemic and created delays in tablet inventory,” Trombetta said. “We are working diligently with our tablet partners to fulfill all tablet needs.”

The contract with Corrections stipulates Securus must meet quarterly with agency officials, “a friends and family representative” and a representative from the ombuds office.

In early June, Robertson said she hadn’t yet received an invitation to a single quarterly meeting.

Trombetta noted Securus holds quarterly meetings with Corrections staff and family members, but did not mention meeting with the ombuds office.

Not all the changes have been negative. One outcome of the Securus changeover is people in solitary confinement are now able to make calls from their cells. Previously, they had to wait to call from the yard, Robertson said.

Schmitt pointed out the app selection on Securus tablets is much better than it was on JPay devices. The movie and game selection is better too, he said.

And at least one person with a loved one in prison noted that though phone call quality might be worse, calls drop less often now.

Trombetta noted that “with every major platform upgrade, issues will arise, and as a technology provider we acknowledge that we are not immune to system disruptions.”

Securus works “closely” with Corrections to address issues, she said.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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