Criminal Justice

Providing services and goods for jails and prisons: a boon for private companies, not for inmates and their families

Nationally, there is increased interest in criminal justice reform, however, little has changed in families’ daily interactions with jails and prisons.

The emotional, financial, and psychological costs are high when someone you love is in custody of the criminal justice system.

Like thousands of other mothers of inmates, my niece, Ann Williams,* regularly sends her son, Derek,* money for food, personal items, and telephone access.

Her sole source of income: a monthly disability check for $1153.

Derek,* 24, is serving a maximum two-year sentence at High Desert State Prison (HDP) in Indian Springs, Nevada, yet Ann cannot have face-to-face contact with him.

It seems that her application for visitation triggered a review by the prison for any criminal history. 

After two months with no response to her application, Ann, 53, contacted prison officials who told her that she would be barred from visiting her son.

“They told me that I needed proof that charges (for an old felony case) had been dismissed. (She wonders why the county’s records did not include the disposition of her case.)

“I decided that I didn’t want to follow-up,” says Ann.

Hence, her only contact with Derek is via mail or telephone since HDP does not offer videoconferencing.

What HDP does offer are these services–telephone access, food packages, and money deposits–provided by the Keefe Group.

Keefe Group

According to its website,

Since 1975, Keefe has serviced the correctional market exclusively and pioneered the evolution of products, packaging and technology services to fit the needs of facilities nationwide.”

Ann relies on phone calls for sharing family happenings with Derek.

She uses prepaid Advance Connect, another Keefe affiliate, that allows deposits of up to a $50.00 for 15-minute calls. (She preferred a previous provider because the calls were 30 minutes, but her only option is Advance Connect.)

Depending on the prison facility, there is a one-time processing fee of up to $3.00 for online payments. (Payment through MoneyGram is $10.99 or Western Union, $11.95.)

Derek complaint is that oftentimes calls don’t go through, or he gets a busy signal even when his mother’s line is not in use.

Through Access Corrections, Ann deposits money for Derek’s commissary; for a recent $60.00 deposit, she paid a fee of $6.95.

 Ann once overpaid by $275.00 because she didn’t think that her first online attempt to deposit funds had gone through. Consequently, she re-submitted the money and found out that, in fact, her card was debited twice for a total of $550.

When Ann contacted Access Corrections, the company said that she could not get a refund. To do so, the account would to be deemed “fraudulent,” and her debit card blocked. She did not get an explanation for why she should be penalized for a simple error.

Access Secure, also a affiliate of Keefe, sells pre-packaged, processed foods (e.g. chips, candy, soda, canned meats, dried noodles, and cheese) high in sodium, calories, and saturated fat to a inmate population considered at risk for developing chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension.

As with other pre-packaged food plans, an inmate cannot specify food preferences, nor can his family send special or culturally-specific foods (for birthdays or holidays).

In “The Big Business of Prisoner Care Packages” written by Taylor Elizabet Eldridge for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that publishes articles on criminal justice :

The privatization of services at correctional facilities generally leaves prisoners and families with fewer choices, forcing them to do business with certain vendors or do without,” says Wanda Bertram, for the Prison Policy Initiative, that advocate for incarcerated and their families and has conducted research on predatory practices in the jail and prison communication industry.”

In  May 2019, a Crime Report article, “How Private Prison Services Control a ‘Captive’ Market” reported on a new study published in Criminology and Public Policy by Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and her team of researchers.

“As justice systems across the U.S. cope with strained budges, private companies have stepped in to offer services ranging from prisoner communications and banking to supervising probation, with the argument that they can serve the taxpayers money and do a more efficient job…

“(T)he monopoly power such firms have over a “captive market” of inmates and defendants who are required by authorities to use their services potentially adds ‘another layer of punishment’ to the poor people who make up the bulk of those involve in the U.S. justice system.'”

Ann and Derek Williams represent the face of this “captive” market.

*Their names have changed to protect their privacy.

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