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In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, detainees talk on telephones at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif. Image: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Securus Technologies Is Cashing in on Immigrant Detention

A notorious prison telecom company is building a massive database that includes personal information about ICE’s immigrant prisoners––and their families.
June 12, 2020, 12:00pm

Securus Technologies, a prison telecommunications firm notorious for its predatory business practices, has quietly joined the ranks of companies profiting from immigrant detention.

The company operates in more than 3,400 correctional facilities nationwide and—for rates that have run as high as $25 for a 15-minute call—provides the only phone service available to some 1.2 million incarcerated people, according to its website. Today, due in part to the Trump administration’s rapid expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, many of those prisoners are immigrants.

While Securus is bad for everyone subjected to its network, the company imposes conditions that are particularly hard on those who aren’t U.S. citizens. For many immigrants and asylum seekers who have already been cut off from family and friends, Securus’ high rates make phone calls or video conferencing cost prohibitive, leading to further isolation. For those without bank accounts or credit, it can be difficult to use Securus services at all. Worse yet, an incarcerated person who communicates with an undocumented loved one might put that person in jeopardy by contacting them through Securus’ heavily surveilled system.

Not only is Securus exploiting the country’s growing population of immigrant prisoners for profit, but through commissions it pays back to the facilities it operates in, the company also creates financial incentives for jails to increase both the number of people they incarcerate and the amount of time immigrant prisoners remain locked up. By harvesting the communications data of ICE prisoners, Securus also sells local law enforcement several powerful tools for tracking and identifying prisoners’ families and friends.

While Securus does not contract directly with ICE, just 10 percent of all immigrants detained in the U.S. are held in ICE-run facilities. The rest are held in private detention centers or county and local jails that have Intergovernmental Service Agreements (IGSAs) with ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Department of Homeland Security to incarcerate immigrants.

Documents obtained from federal agencies and through public records requests show that Securus has been operating in facilities where immigrants are held since at least 2008, and has provided telecom and surveillance services to no fewer than 13 facilities that hold ICE detainees in 11 states, most of which are county jails where immigrants make up a minority portion of the overall incarcerated population. As of January 2020, Securus had active contracts with at least nine county jails where immigrants were being held.

Securus also contracts with private detention centers, however, one of which has been the West Texas Detention Facility, owned by LaSalle Corrections, according to a 2018 ICE inspection report. The facility has housed a combination of people imprisoned by local, state, and federal agencies, but was holding 662 immigrants for ICE (over 60 percent of its total capacity) on the last day of April 2019, according to data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Partnering with the Worst of the Worst

This West Texas facility has been the subject of numerous abuse and human rights allegations. One immigrant I spoke to, Ali, whose full name is withheld here because his asylum status is still in question, claims he was repeatedly pepper sprayed at the West Texas Detention Facility, which federal documents show was contracting with Securus during the same year he was detained there. He also alleges a guard grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head against the shower in his cell, and that at one point he was stripped to his boxers and locked outside in a cage for over two hours in the cold as punishment for requesting his asthma medication.

“What was done to me in that West Texas facility affects my whole livelihood, mentally and physically,” Ali told me. “I wish that nobody ever goes through what I went through there…It was inhumane…I was just a property facing deportation.”

His complaints echo those from a group of about 80 African immigrants, interviewed by activists and lawyers from RAICES, Texas A&M School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, and University of Texas School of Law, who say they were subjected to grave physical, verbal, and sexual abuse at the West Texas Detention Facility shortly before being deported en masse in 2018.

The facility has also been plagued by water shortages, one of which led to a 2016 article from Fronteras reporting claims of overflowing toilets and incarcerated people being forced to defecate in plastic bags.

When asked to comment on these allegations, David Valdez, Assistant Warden of West Texas Detention Facility, declined to go into detail, but said, “You’ve got to understand that this is a correctional facility, if something like that did happen, the agencies would actually be involved, there would be an investigation, things are reported to our corporate office. So anything you want to look into, it is there for you to call either the agencies or our corporate office and they can give you more information about that.”

The corporate office did not respond to numerous requests for comment. A water shortage in late 2019 finally led ICE to remove its prisoners from the facility.

Among other facilities Securus contracts with, several are notorious for repeated allegations of abuses against immigrants. At Baker County Detention Center in Florida, which held an average daily population of 269 people detained by ICE at the time of its last public financial disclosure in 2017, an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a number of serious complaints from incarcerated immigrants in 2016, including physical abuse by guards, denial of urgent medical care, lack of adequate food, and a lack of basic sanitation.

Mining Prisoners for Valuable Data

As ICE has expanded its detention footprint through a series of IGSAs with county jails like Baker and private detention centers like the West Texas Detention Facility, thousands of immigrants have been caught up in Securus’ sprawling machine of wealth extraction, with more entering its system each day.

The company’s invasive, for-profit surveillance apparatus is particularly troubling for prisoners being held by ICE. Because most jails in the U.S. have cancelled all in-person visitation during the COVID-19 outbreak, and because some had even cancelled in-person visits prior to the pandemic, many immigrant prisoners have no way to communicate with the outside world except through channels monitored by Securus. This includes phones, video calls, and written communications—all through which Securus harvests the personal data of prisoners and their families.

In 2018, Securus was found to be providing hundreds of correctional facilities and county sheriffs departments with a tool to identify the GPS coordinates of any cell phone an incarcerated person called. The tool––which Securus provided to the county jail in St. Clair, Michigan, where a 2018 ICE inspection report shows that at least 82 immigrants were being held in August of that year––allowed local law enforcement, without warrants, to track civilians simply because they had spoken to an incarcerated person on the phone.

The cell-tracking service was discontinued after being exposed in media reports. But another invasive surveillance tool called THREADS remains a core feature of Securus’ service. Described in contracts as a platform that “allows law enforcement users to analyze corrections and communications data from multiple sources to generate targeted investigative leads,” THREADS is a massive database of recorded calls, phone records, billing names and addresses, data pulled from cell phones confiscated from prisoners, and scanned prisoner mail—all of it pooled and shared between the thousands of facilities where Securus operates.

The database not only collects information about detained immigrants, and everyone else inside who is forced to use Securus’ system, it also collects information on anyone those incarcerated folks communicate with.

In language from its website in 2017, which has since been scrubbed, Securus described THREADS as a growing database that already included the names and billing addresses of over 600,000 people who were not incarcerated, but who had at some point communicated with incarcerated people over the Securus network.

Securus has also been rolling out a so-called Digital Mail Center, through which it scans mail being sent to incarcerated people and delivers digital copies to them via tablet. The system is purportedly designed to stop contraband from entering the facilities, but it also allows Securus to scan and store every letter prisoners send or receive. This includes photographs, which Securus scans and stores for a period of two years. Those images, stored in the THREADS database, are accessible to guards at thousands of jails and prisons throughout the country.

A Case Study in Exploitation

Many of the ethical issues of Securus’ involvement in immigrant detention come into sharp focus at a facility where the company is in the midst of launching one of its newest systems: Etowah County Jail. Located in northeastern Alabama, Etowah held about 300 daily immigrant prisoners in 2017 and charges ICE one of the lowest per diem rates of any facility in the country: $45, according to an IGSA signed in 2015, compared to the national average that year of more than $160.

In 2018, local news site AL.com revealed that Etowah’s former sheriff relied on a Jim Crow-era law to personally pocket more than $1.5 million of jail food funds, while feeding incarcerated folks expired and rotten food.

Awot Negash, who was recently released from ICE detention at Etowah, described meals at the facility as inadequate, saying that those who could not afford to purchase additional food from the commissary were forced to go hungry.

The Guardian has reported on Etowah as a facility known for drawing high numbers of complaints and holding immigrants for excessively long detention times. In 2019, a three-year FOIA lawsuit brought by several immigrant advocacy organizations (led by the Adelante Alabama Workers Center) against the Department of Homeland Security revealed a long history of abuses against immigrants detained at Etowah that have gone largely unaddressed and unaccounted for.

In late 2019, Securus won a bid to provide services to the jail using methods that shed light on how the company has come to dominate so much of the prison telecommunications market. According to its Best and Final Offer that was accepted by the Etowah County Commission, Securus’ winning bid included offering Etowah County an 85 percent commission on all revenue they earn from prisoner calls (guaranteed at a minimum of $106,250 each quarter), along with a $100,000 “upfront supplemental payment.”

Bianca Tylek, founder of the prisoner advocacy organization Worth Rises, called such an arrangement, which is commonly used by Securus, tantamount to bribery. “It’s a bought contract,” she said, going on to further describe the arrangement as being designed to extract immense amounts of wealth from those who have the least.

The situation is inseparable from a long history of enslaving and detaining people of color in this country for the purpose of generating profit.

“If something is so gravely, disproportionately impacting folks of color,” said Tylek, whose organization is leading a vocal campaign against Securus, “and if you say you want to be part of that system that continues to take from them, then your value system must be racist in nature.”

According to the terms outlined in its final bid, Securus is charging those held at Etowah between $0.21 and $0.25 per minute for domestic calls and $0.75 per minute for international. They will also issue every incarcerated person a supposedly free tablet soon, upon which they can send or receive emails for $0.50 each, plus an additional $0.50 for each incoming photo.

People incarcerated at Etowah will be able to use the tablets to download games ($0.99–$12.99 per download), music ($1.06–$1.99 per download), and movies ($1.99–$14.99 per download)—with the county getting a 20 percent commission on each sale made on Securus’ tablets.

Though Securus’ Etowah bid does not mention books, Awot Negash explained to me that Etowah’s recently instituted ban on books and other reading materials was one of the most frustrating aspects of his detention there.

“Your brain is like any other muscle, it’ll atrophy if you don’t use it,” he told me. “I cannot stress enough how much I hated that I could not order books in there.”

A report from Book Riot last year revealed that shortly after the Ohio Department of Corrections began refusing physical book donations, Securus issued tablets and began charging incarcerated folks to access Project Gutenberg ebooks, which are freely available to the public online.

Securus will also provide Etowah with their Digital Mail Center service, ensuring that nearly every communication between the people incarcerated there and the outside world is logged, recorded, and uploaded into the THREADS surveillance platform.

The launch of Securus’ system coincided with a decision by the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office to restrict a long-running volunteer visitation program, where community members from the surrounding area would visit regularly with immigrant detainees, bring them books and care packages, and provide a measure of contact with the outside world. The new restrictions, instituted as retribution for a protest rally that program members attended outside the facility, have effectively ended the free visitation program, according to Katherine Weather, director of the Etowah Visitation Project, and Resha Swanson of the Adelante Alabama Workers Coalition.

Now, because Etowah does not allow in-person visitation (a policy put in place well before the pandemic began), all visits will soon be conducted via Securus’ remote video conferencing platform, which will cost incarcerated folks $11.40 per 30-minute session—20 percent of which is to be paid as commission to Etowah County.

Etowah’s local newspaper predicts that, all told, the Securus contract could bring in some $700,000 annually.

In addition to giving the sheriff a financial incentive to increase the number of people incarcerated at the jail, as well as an invasive new tool for investigating the friends and family members of those already being held there, Etowah’s arrangement with Securus is also likely to further erode the rights of immigrants at the facility, nearly all of whom are in the process of fighting their deportation cases.

ICE detention standards stipulate that detainees are entitled to free phone calls to legal representatives. Yet a memo obtained through the above-mentioned FOIA lawsuit by Adelante Alabama from the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties shows dozens of unaddressed complaints from immigrants at Etowah that free calls were not being provided.

Another immigrant who was detained at Etowah in 2018 and spoke to me on the condition that I would withhold his name for fear of compromising his pending asylum case, claimed that to call a lawyer without paying required a written application that could take weeks to obtain approval, making it nearly impossible to communicate with legal aid for those who couldn’t afford to use Etowah’s phones.

“You have to laugh,” Negash told me, describing his experience of how the ICE administrative system worked. “If you don’t laugh, you’re going to go crazy,” he said. “It is funny in a really sad way, and a upsetting way, the lengths that they will go to to keep you detained.”

Meanwhile, Securus denies responsibility, claiming that because they also hold county inmates, the jails it contracts with are not technically immigrant detention centers.

When contacted with a list of detailed questions about how its services could be harming immigrants, Jade Trombetta, a senior manager of communications at Securus’ parent company Aventiv Technologies, responded that, “Securus Technologies does not provide products or services to any immigrant detention facilities, nor contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The company provides products and services to state Department of Corrections facilities and county jails. Our contractual obligations do not allow us to refuse service to an incarcerated individual based on his or her status as an immigration detainee.”