Categories
Correctional Insights

Why Inmate Phones are
Not a Public Utility

Nearly a decade ago, a debate began in earnest as to whether or not inmate phone providers could be considered public utility companies. This discussion on rate regulation formally began with Illinois congressional representative Bobby L. Rush’s bill, HR 555, The Family Telephone Connection Protection Act of 2007. The bill was never enacted into law, but it brought into consideration the idea of regulating inmate telephone services.

Many people still feel strongly that the inmate phone industry requires more government regulation. A new bill introduced in March would grant the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory power over interstate inmate calls, and last November, the ACLU published a report concerning this issue. The idea that inmate phone calls have to be expensive is reprehensible to many people and organizations, including our Encartele. We disagree with our competitors about this point, but as industry experts, we are also well-acquainted with the hard costs and labor that go into building and maintaining these communication infrastructures.

There’s a very good reason why inmate phone companies cannot be regulated like public utilities. Simply put, the companies in question do not meet the legal definition of a public utility company. We agree with the ACLU that the inmate phones industry needs better government regulation, but we can’t operate like public utilities.

What is a Public Utility?

It’s an elusive concept, but understanding what a public utility is and is not makes up a crucial part of this discussion. The government’s authority to regulate public utilities has been questioned ever since FDR’s New Deal in the 1930’s, (Historia). Today, the turbulent techno-legal landscape of the U.S. makes this topic even trickier to discuss.

According to the Cornell Law School website (which pulls a definition from Nolo’s Plain English Law Dictionary):

“[A] public utility is any organization which provides services to the general public, although it may be privately owned. Public utilities include electric, gas, telephone, water, and television cable systems, as well as streetcar and bus lines. Public utilities are allowed certain monopoly rights because of the practical need to service entire geographic areas with one system, but they are regulated by state, county, and city public utility commissions under state laws.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s break it down:

  1. A public utility provides the general public with a service.
  2. A public utility can be publicly or privately owned.
  3. A public utility requires government regulation, because they are allowed certain monopoly rights to service geographic areas with one system (also known as a natural monopoly).

You may have noticed that telephones were mentioned in that Cornell definition. So that means inmate phones are utilities too then, right? Wrong. There are a whole host of differences between both services. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Inmate Phones aren’t for the General Public

Every homeowner gets thirsty and needs water pumped into their homes, but not everyone needs to use an inmate phone provider. Some people will go their entire lives without ever receiving an inmate phone call, and that’s just the nature of the business. Inmate phone infrastructure and solutions were never intended for the general public’s use, they were designed by and for the corrections industry.

In addition, both services have very different expressed-use scenarios. Counties often use ITS solutions to facilitate rehabilitation among their detainees, while telephone service for the general public can be used in any number of ways. Public calls can be made at any hour of the day, whereas inmate phone calls are restricted to certain time periods for security reasons. The telephone service provider has no requirement to maintain and store call data for years and years after the call was initiated, for investigative purposes. Nor is the public utility telephone service obligated to cover the entire cost of their infrastructure regardless of whether a monopolistic region will be profitable or not.

Modern inmate telephone systems require a significant number of additional security features that ordinary phone service providers don’t need to develop or maintain. This is part of the reason why inmate phone calls are so much more expensive than regular phone calls.

According to a 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service, the exclusive contractual arrangements negotiated between jails and telephone service providers ensure security and allow them to monitor inmate phone calls. This report also stated that The National Sheriffs Association told Congress in 2009 that changing these arrangements could endanger public safety.

Conclusion

Inmate phone providers by definition are not utilities. We serve highly select populations, and our infrastructure is not accessible for general-purpose use by the public. As we mentioned above, Encartele agrees that inmate phone calls shouldn’t have to be expensive. That’s why we strive to offer affordable rates for all our services, especially CIDNET Mail.

That being said, we also understand that our industry faces some major challenges, mainly in the form of the high cost of commissions levied out in our contracts. If reform-minded organizations wanted to affect meaningful change for friends and family members of inmates, they’d call for something like a nationwide ITS commissions cap rather than utility regulation. Currently, ITS providers don’t compete based on the per-minute cost of the phone calls, they compete based on the commissions they can offer to counties. Capping these commissions would go a long way towards returning a true sense of competition to our industry, and reducing the per-minute cost of the phone call in the process.

Politicians and the ACLU are right about the per-minute costs of inmate calling being too high. Unfortunately, they’re wrong about the best way to lower them.

Categories
Tips & Facts

The Top 3 Ways Inmates Keep
In Contact With Family Members

It’s easy to take family for granted. In most cases, our wishes to be connected are granted at the simple touch of a button, whether we’re a world away from our family or connecting with a childhood friend we last saw 20 years ago. Have you had a rough week at work and need some positive words of encouragement? Your family members are only a phone call or Facebook message away.

Consistent communication constitutes a vital part of our everyday life, and for obvious reasons. Humans are social animals, by nature. Consider what it would be like to lose contact with your far-off loved ones. Many inmates living in correctional facilities face this isolation, and their families feel it too. Unfortunately, budgetary restrictions and a lack of resources end up separating families all across this nation. Although maintaining and improving inmate communication methods remains a struggle, the research cited below demonstrates the importance of consistent communication for those in correctional facilities.

Costly Calls

The most common and widely adopted avenue for inmate communication is the use of inmate phones. Given that this mode of communication is easily monitored and offers rapid accessibility in regards to reaching family members, it seems like a no-brainer that this is the most popular option. However, unless you’ve had to phone a relative or friend in prison, you may not be aware of the high costs that tag along with these phone calls. This cost not only discourages attempting single, one-off calls, it also creates barriers for family members trying to maintain consistent contact with incarcerated loved ones. In a research study called the Community Justice Project, a group of Minnesota prisoners explained the importance of phone calls. One member explained how important phone calls are, stating: “Hearing that voice that says they love you is your lifeline.” Despite the price restrictions that come with inmate phone calls, it’s a service many rely upon to communicate with their loved ones.

You’ve Got Mail

Two other common, more cost-efficient methods of inmate communication are inmate mail and email. The majority of correctional facilities allow written correspondence in the form of physical mail. The cost of the stamp, envelope, and paper associated with physical mail and the almost nonexistent cost to send an email are minuscule compared to the costs of phoning family members. Other added benefits of written correspondence in prison facilities is the potential they have in correcting behavior in a positive aspect. In fact, many researchers studying imprisonment believe that written communication between inmates and free citizens holds immense potential. According to the Crime Museum, “[Written correspondence] is thought to provide a link between their current and former lives and will give them a desire to get out as quickly as possible and never return.” The only downside here is that few jail administrators have established inmate email services, even though these services are just as secure as traditional postage.

In the Flesh

While in-person visitation with friends and family members is less popular than phone calls or physical mail, it holds many advantages from a rehabilitation standpoint. Not only does the inmate get to hear the voices of their loved ones, but they also get to see their faces as well. Many correctional facilities accommodate in-person visitation, but only in tight moderation. Other agencies have fairly subjective rules, and leaving administration of this privilege to the discretion of individual officers. For example, Washington State Penitentiary discourages “excessive emotion” but enforcement of that rule is left up to the on-duty staff.

A new trend that many prisons and jails are adopting is video visitations, or speaking to your incarcerated loved ones through a video chat, like Skype. There are many advantages to this, such as less concern with contraband coming in, leading to fewer strip searches. Further, jails also profit by adopting this method. According to National Public Radio (NPR), “If families do a video visit at the jail, it’s free, but if they do it from their home computer, it can cost $1 per minute.” Although this comes with many added benefits, the one very important thing that is lost here is the physical touch and presence of family members and loved ones, an irreplaceable virtue. These trade-offs should encourage jail administrators to offer both options as complimentary services for the public, instead of only offering in-person or video visitation.

Communication is Key

When it comes to maintaining relationships for incarcerated people, consistency is indispensable. From both a rehabilitation and behavioral standpoint, correctional facilities could see vast positive impacts in implementing these communication methods. In fact, according to a 1972 study, Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships, the central finding of the research revealed a “strong and consistent positive relationship that exists between parole success and maintaining strong family ties while in prison.” The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice also touches on the importance of consistent communication, noting: “Research has demonstrated that regular communication between prisoners and their loved ones reduces recidivism and promotes successful re-entry.” Just as in any relationship, communication is key. While many correctional facilities have done a fine job at implementing different modes of communication, it is paramount that we take advantage of every options. The benefits of phone calls, mail, and visitations of all types shouldn’t be under-estimated, because better communication is a win-win for all.

Categories
Tips & Facts

Video Visitations Reliant upon Adobe
Flash will be Obsolete by 2020

As the end-of-life date for Adobe Flash creeps nearer and nearer (December 2020[1]), jail administrators across the country should be preparing for the transition. Flash is a browser plug-in used by several of the more substantial video visitation providers to stream audio and video to inmate family and friends who connect remotely from personal devices. Video visitation providers that currently use Flash will need to provide an alternative by the time Adobe stops issuing security patches in 2020.

In fact, much of the tech world has already taken steps to move away from the Adobe Flash plug-in. Microsoft’s Edge and Internet Explorer browsers will disable Flash by default in 2018.[2] But that’s nothing compared to Apple’s mobile products and browsers, which have focused on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript as Flash-alternatives since 2010.[3]

Suffice it to say that the writing is on the wall for Adobe Flash. The era of insecure browser plug-ins is coming to a close. It’s a great time to be online, but folks who are less technically inclined may still be wondering: “Why is Adobe discontinuing Flash?”

The answer is software vulnerabilities.

Historical Software Vulnerabilities of Adobe Flash

Journalist Aatif Sulleyman summarizes Flash’s main problem very well: “[Flash] has become less and less useful over the years, but is constantly being exploited by cybercriminals, who keep finding security holes that they can use to attack users.”[4]

Diminishing returns and added security problems? It’s no wonder companies like Apple and Microsoft are distancing their customers from the product. And these security vulnerabilities are no joke. There have been more than 600 critical vulnerabilities documented to-date, 57 of which appeared in the last year.[5,6,7]

In fact, let’s take a second to talk about 2017, the year of the Bad Rabbit. “One of the more notable social engineering-enabled attacks of 2017 was Bad Rabbit. The international ransomware attack began with legitimate but compromised sites that requested a fake Adobe Flash update that contained the malware,” according to a Skybox Security white paper.[8]

Skybox Security isn’t the only cybersecurity company researching Flash. Recorded Future–an internet company specializing in real-time threat analysis–identified the top vulnerabilities used by exploit kits in 2015 after analyzing sources from criminal forums, .onion sites, and social media. Adobe Flash Player vulnerabilities dominated the list with thousands of references.[9]

Adobe Flash is listed eight times on Recorded Future's Top Vulnerabilities Used by Exploit Kits Bar Graph.

Continuing Problems

By now, it should be evident that the Adobe Flash web plug-in has been brutalized by cybercriminals over the course of its lifespan. Why video visitation providers would knowingly use this technology to connect with otherwise highly secure incarceration facilities is unfathomable. And don’t believe for a second that Flash’s security problems are a thing of the past; as of the time of this writing, the most recent critical Adobe Flash vulnerability was fixed on February 6, 2018.[10]

It’s impressive that some video visitation providers STILL rely on Flash to handle their services, let alone that they ever adopted the plug-in in the first place. Hopefully, Adobe’s 2020 deadline will force providers to take their client’s security seriously.

Who Still Uses Adobe Flash?

As of the time of this writing, video visitation giants Securus,[11] Telmate,[12] and Homewav[13] all use the Adobe Flash Player. If that concerns you, contact your video visitation solutions provider with additional questions.

Linked References

  1. Flash & The Future of Interactive Content.
  2. The End of an Era – Next Steps for Adobe Flash.
  3. Steve Jobs: Thoughts on Flash.
  4. Adobe Flash Player Users Urged to Disable Software After it Lets Criminals Infect Computers.
  5. Adversarial Detection of Flash Malware: Limitations and Open Issues.
  6. Adobe Flash Player Security Vulnerabilities.
  7. How Flash Vulnerabilities Expose You To Attacks.
  8. Vulnerability and Threat Trends Report 2018.
  9. Gone in a Flash: Top 10 Vulnerabilities Used by Exploit Kits.
  10. Security Advisory for Flash Player.
  11. Securus Terms and Conditions.
  12. Telmate Visit Test.
  13. Homewav Device Compatibility.