Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Fun with Securus

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I sat down and wrote letters to every client that I was representing who was incarcerated in the Harris County Jail.  In my letter, I gave them a brief summary of the current situation with the courthouses, told them of their current court date setting, and I told them that those dates were highly likely to change in the days to come.  I told my clients that due to limited space, there was going to be little opportunity to talk to them during court settings.  It would be far more practical to discuss their cases outside of court, and if it did not appear that anything would be accomplished during an upcoming court setting, we should reset it.  There was no need for them to be inconvenienced by being brought to court, just to sign a reset and leave.

In the letter, I also reminded them of my policy of accepting collecting phone calls from my clients.  I gave them my phone number as a reminder and asked them all to call me prior to their next scheduled court date.

"Creepy" stock photo of me on the phone.  Published in tribute to my 
social media consultant who really really hates this picture.

And it worked.  My phone started ringing off the hook with collect phone calls, provided by Securus, from my clients.  Sure, it was expensive -- $14.99 for up to 20 minutes, but it was more convenient (not to mention cost effective) than driving to the jail, going through security, and waiting for an attorney booth to open.  I could talk to them about evidentiary issues, plea offers, and scheduling.  Pretty much all of my clients seemed very happy to be able to reach me by phone.

The pre-recorded message that began every call started with something along the lines of this:
You are receiving a collect call from [INMATE'S NAME], an inmate in the Harris County Jail . . . 
It then went on to state the price of the call and how long we could talk, and let me hit a button to bill the credit card that I already had on file. As soon as I was done hitting all the requisite buttons, I was connected to my client.  We could talk court settings and logistical issues, but I cautioned my clients to not discuss the facts of the case over the phone.  Securus doesn't have the best record for honoring that whole "attorney/client privilege" thingy that we all find to be so important.

For the first few weeks after Harvey, things were going pretty smoothly.  Almost all of the clients that I had on imminent dockets were calling.  Communication was good.  I had offers to convey from prosecutors.  If it looked like the case could work out, we put it on a plea docket.  If not, we took it off the docket.  The communication helped get some people out of jail and home.  

That's a good thing.

Two days ago, I got a call from the Harris County Jail, and I answered it.  This time, the message was different.
You are receiving a call from [INMATE'S NAME], an inmate in the Harris County Jail.  If you would like to set up a pre-paid account for this inmate, please press 1.
Well, um, paying for an inmate to talk to me, his or her attorney, is great.  Setting up an account for them to talk to whoever they want to . . . not so much.  Quite frankly, in many cases, enabling a client to talk to non-lawyers is very detrimental to that client's case.  Despite recorded messages warning inmates that calls are recorded and monitored, they still go right ahead and say things that screw up their cases on a regular basis.

But I digress.

Initially, I assumed that the inmate must be dialing out wrong, so I hung up the phone to see what the next call said.  The requirements to set up a pre-paid account persisted.  Eventually, I pressed 1 to see what setting up a pre-paid account actually entailed. I was connected to an actual real person to walk me through it.

I asked the lady on the phone why I could no longer accept collect calls.  I told her I didn't want to set individual slush funds for my clients to call whomever they pleased.  She told me that I had the option of setting up a fund for calls just to me, or I could set up a fund on a per inmate basis.  She said that I must have received "too many collect calls" for a time period and that was why I was being required to set up a fund.

Wait.  What?  I was receiving "too many collect calls"?  Says who?  I'm pretty sure they all went on my office credit card, and the good folks at Securus were being paid what was due.  If anyone had a right to complain about too many collect calls, surely that would be me, right?  She mumbled something about company policy and said that a pre-paid account for me "might" save me money.

Uh huh.   So, I told her that I would agree to set up a pre-paid account for calls to me.  And that's when things got fun.

When I gave her my office number, she told me that number was already on file with another account so I would be unable to set up a pre-paid account.  What's the name of the account that has that number? I asked.  She said she couldn't tell me because it was private.  I assured her that my office number had belonged to me and only me for eight years now.  She told me that I would need to provide proof of my phone number by faxing them a copy of my phone bill in my name.

I told her I would do that immediately and asked her how long that would take.  She told me at least 48 hours.  Securus would "investigate" why someone else would set up an account in my name.

"So for the next two days, my clients can't call me from the jail?"


"You can't switch back to letting them call me collect?"


"So, they're just screwed?"

"Until we can investigate and determine that you are the correct number and figure out what happens, we cannot set up an account, sir."

So, basically, I have a number of clients that can't reach me by phone, despite the fact that I sent them all letters instructing them to call me.   I have no doubt that the other account that Securus has linked my phone number to was a mistake made by them. I called Securus this afternoon to make sure that they had received my faxed telephone bill.  The question clearly annoyed the lady who answered the phone.  Faxes go to another department, she said.  The issue would be resolved in 48 hours at the earliest.  She couldn't provide me with any additional information.

In the time that it has taken me to write this post, my office phone has rung with calls from the Harris County Jail no fewer than twenty times -- all of them are calls that I requested, but can't accept. It is frustrating and it's embarrassing.

But Securus is the only game in town.  They have a contract with the jail as they do in many other counties and states across the country.  If you want to use the phone from jail, you gotta go through them.  In doing some background research on Securus, I stumbled across this article, published just two days ago.  Apparently Securus was recently purchased by the owner of the Detroit Pistons.  That's interesting.

What's more interesting were these two paragraphs:
The election of Donald Trump has already given an economic boost to those profiting from mass incarceration. The stock prices of the two biggest private prison builders -- CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group -- doubled after Trump took office.
Companies that charge for expensive phone calls from prisons and jails also won big after Trump's victory. One of the president's first appointments placed Ajit Pai at the helm of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who promptly rolled back the agency's 2015 decision to regulate the prison phone industry. The companies hailed it as a victory.
An incarcerated inmate's inability to reach his lawyer by phone may not seem like that big of a deal to those not directly affected by it.  Yes, I'm aware that they can still write me and I can go visit them.  But there is something so fundamentally flawed about a private company not only having the ability to charge exorbitant amounts of money for phone calls between an attorney and a client, but to stop those calls altogether.

It is a sad day when the 6th Amendment gets trampled on -- not by a judge, a prosecutor, or police officer -- but by a price-gouging private company handed a monopoly as part of the Prison Industrial Complex.


Tom said...

Securus supposedly has a way we can call the clients confidentially -- that is not recorded -- in the jail and even have video. Of course, you recall that recordings of attorney-client calls from the Travis County Jail ended up in the DA's office.
A word to the wise. It might be more efficient to have Kim set up the phone calls. It would save the Securus overhead.

Murray Newman said...

I was all excited when that video call thing was brought up, but I was never able to make it work. First, it didn't work on Macs. Then there was some sort of registration process that never seemed to get accepted. Plus, you have to book a pre-scheduled time in advance for your client/inmate to be brought to the video phone. It doesn't allow them to reach out when they want to talk to you. You just got to reach out when you wanted to talk to them.

You can provide the Sheriff's Office with your number as an attorney and they allegedly won't record calls to your number, but, like you, I have my doubts.

Jefe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jefe said...

Securus is a scam.

Will Conrad said...

Murray, I have been a long-time reader since I began practicing in Houston after graduating from UH. I am now in Waco. We have a system where I can make a non-third party call into the jail using the normal phones to speak with clients. It works pretty well. Good luck with Securus. Also, I have a client who was sent to SJ after a plea in Harris County. What would be the easiest way to gather some documents about backtime?

Anonymous said...

The video hook up is a waste of time. I signed up when it was first offered, went through the line and was photographed and did the whole registration. The first time I tried to use it, I had to reregister. About 2 months after I reregistered, I received notice I could have a visit with my client. We had already had the trial by then.