The prison phone industry, which has come under fire for the exorbitant fees it charges prisoners calling home, may be set to become even more profitable. This month, the giant inmate phone services company Securus petitioned the FCC to approve its plan to buy a smaller competitor, ICSolutions.
If the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission approves the merger, just two companies (Securus and Global Tel Link) would control between 74 percent and 83 percent of the market, according to analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). (Securus responded to PPI’s analysis, calling it “unreliable and misleading.”)
I previously wrote about how the prison phone industry is lucrative for both companies and states: Companies squeeze as much money as possible out of prisoners and their families, who are typically poor, while states often award contracts to phone companies that are willing to pay the highest commission rates. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay as much $1 per minute for a phone call.
As Aleks Kajstura, legal director at PPI, wrote in a blog post, just two companies controlling the lion’s share of the prison communications industry “will give facilities less choice and less ability to draft contracts that truly meet their needs.” According to reporting by the Marshall Project, if the deal is approved, prison systems in 47 states will contract with either Securus, Global Tel Link, or CenturyLink—and CenturyLink subcontracts nearly all of its contracts with ICSolutions or Securus.
PPI joined a number of prisoner advocacy organizations in filing a petition to deny the merger—but not merely because of the threat of a duopoly. They also argue that Securus routinely ignores regulations in order to maximize its profits (like when the FCC banned flat-rate fees on phone calls, and Securus changed the name of the charge to “first-minute” fees).
How will the Trump FCC rule on this? We can’t be sure yet, but let’s look to recent history: Last year, the administration approved Global Tel Link’s acquisition of Telmate, a company that had a market share just shy of ICSolutions’.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File A clerk reaches to a shelf to pick an item for a customer order at the Amazon Prime warehouse in New York. trickle-downers_35.jpg O n that most sacred of retail discount days, Prime Day, Amazon’s profits continued to soar—but not without its employees attempting to improve their working conditions, and a host of groups calling attention to how far Amazon is willing to go to retain its market dominance. On Prime Day—which was this past Tuesday and so extensively covered by the media that Amazon reaped a further fortune in free advertising—the company made roughly $3 billion in sales and added more Prime members to its lists than on any previous day. But even as Prime members—who pay $119 each year for the membership that includes shipping fees, streaming services, and other benefits—were chasing deals, thousands of Amazon workers across Europe were striking, and activists in several countries launched a consumer boycott. Other groups used Prime Day to...
Food justice advocates breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as a pending disruption in farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits was narrowly averted for the time being. Has the Trump administration stepped in and provided a solution to the markets nationwide that were threatened? Of course not! A nonprofit group has cleaned up after the government’s missteps.
Let me try to briefly tell a very complicated story of why this was necessary (which I recently reported in a longer feature). As originally reported by The Washington Post, the federal government chose a new contractor for the program that funds equipment for farmers markets to accept SNAP benefits. That new contractor did not choose to work with the software vendor, Novo Dia, that currently processes SNAP benefits for about 40 percent of SNAP transactions at markets across the country. Because of this, Novo Dia announced it couldn’t cover the costs of their software and was going out of business. Novo Dia’s service to markets would end July 31. Without that vendor’s technology, nearly 2,000 markets would not be able to accept SNAP benefits, affecting SNAP recipients’ ability to buy food and affecting small farmers’ revenue.
But on Thursday, the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs announced that it will fund Novo Dia for an additional 30 days so that there will be no disruption in service for markets who use the company’s app to process SNAP benefits. That service extension will run through at least until the end of August.
Not only will this mean that markets will be able to continue accepting benefits, but it also buys time for markets and advocates to ensure that service isn’t disrupted at all. The move “[gives] us time to provide a long term, workable solution to keeping our markets and farmers active in the SNAP program,” said Diane Eggert of the Farmers Market Federation of New York in a statement. Instead of being forced to find a solution in the next two weeks, farmers and markets have more time to switch equipment (which they likely will still have to fund themselves).
The extension of Novo Dia’s service is great news for farmers markets and SNAP recipients: It’s hard to underscore how perilous the situation would have been for low-income people who shop at markets, as well as for farmers who rely on revenue from SNAP benefits, if SNAP could no longer be accepted at many markets.
But in celebrating, let’s not let the Department of Agriculture off the hook. As I wrote, the government knowingly ended the program last fall and was slow to restart it. They changed the stipulations for the federal contracting bid so that nonprofits were not able to apply, ensuring that it would be a new contractor that would take over the program, who would essentially be starting from scratch. And the department did not work with the new contractor to build a timeline to guarantee service would not be disrupted—that new contractor just started accepting applications this week. Finally, the government stipulated that the new contractor could not accept applications from farmers and markets using equipment under a previous contract, even if that equipment was, say, about to shutdown.
And it wasn’t even the government, which is nominally in charge of this program, who promised they were “exploring all available options in an attempt to avoid a service disruption,“ that solved this problem. Instead, that was left to the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.
Edwin Remsberg / VWPics via AP Images Crates of green peppers, cucumbers, peaches and tomatoes for sale at a farmer's market in Westminster, Maryland I t’s a sunny Friday afternoon in the North Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the North Side farmers market sets up each week. As shoppers mill about to music that’s wafting over from a nearby festival, a long line has formed at the tent operated by Just Harvest, a local anti-hunger nonprofit. Surrounded by a couple dozen vendors selling fresh produce, baked goods, cheeses, jams, and jellies, Just Harvest staff assist recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously called food stamps) so that they’ll be able to use their SNAP benefits to buy any fresh food item at the market. But farmers’ business at the North Side market and other such markets across Pittsburgh—and the thousands of SNAP participants that buy from them—are currently threatened by an Agriculture Department contracting decision. Because...
While many Republican governors have refused to expand Medicaid, some conservative-led states may have to resign themselves to letting direct democracy decide the question, thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups across the country.
In Nebraska last week, advocacy group Insure the Good Life announced that it had received the number of required signatures for a November ballot initiative that will put it to the voters whether to expand access to Medicaid for 90,000 low-income Nebraskans. The group collected 133,000 signatures, almost 60 percent more than the approximately 85,000 necessary. Insure the Good Life is supported by several Nebraska groups, but is mostly funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Fairness Project, a group working to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in states across the country.
Similar efforts backed by the Fairness Project are underway in Idaho and Utah. Idaho, like Nebraska, still needs to validate petition signatures; the expansion measure will appear on the ballot in Utah this fall.
But even if a state’s voters decide to expand health care, that doesn’t mean the state government will necessarily respect the vote. In Maine, about 60 percent of voters elected to expand Medicaid, but Republican Governor Paul LePage is steadfastly refusing to allow the expansion—even in the face of a state judge’s order to stop stalling and to comply with the outcome of the popular vote.
While Nebraska Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’s re-election campaign spokesperson said that the expansion decision “ultimately rests with Nebraska voters,” the state legislature’s cooperation is even less certain. Medicaid expansion has failed repeatedly over the past six years in the Nebraska Legislature, and two Republican state senators have already sued to block the measure from appearing on the ballot.
The efforts to get Medicaid expansion on state ballots is an example of increased progressive grassroots action in conservative-led states, from canvassing for thousands of signatures to raising awareness about how expansion would bring federal dollars into Nebraska and provide health coverage to the poor.
Marea Bishop, an advocate for Insure the Good Life’s petition drive, wrote an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald describing how her health condition keeps her from holding steady work and her own inability to afford health insurance.
“Our communities can no longer wait while our Nebraska lawmakers fail to solve this public health problem,” she wrote. “We can do what our lawmakers have chosen not to do: to give our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow Nebraskans a chance at a healthier life.”