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Lawsuits allege jail phone-call kickback schemes in Genesee, St. Clair counties

Michigan Legislative Council Legislative Corrections Ombudsman

Genesee and St. Clair counties have been accused in separate lawsuits of ending family visitation to jails as a part of a “quid pro quo kickback scheme” with a pair of companies that specialize in inmate prison communications. The suits were filed in their respective county circuit courts.

The lawsuits, first reported by Ars Technica, are seeking class-action status to represent a group of similarly affected people — some of them children related to detainees. The suits say Genesee County ended family visitation in September 2014 and St. Clair County ended visitation in 2017. The plaintiffs claim this was done to profit from revenue splitting with prison communications companies.

ViaPath Technologies and Securus Technologies are accused of profiting off of exclusive deals with the counties, which the plaintiffs say receive kickback money. The companies are accused of conspiring to deprive families of in-person visits.

The suits say the ban on family visitation violates the Michigan Constitution, arguing the constitution “enshrines family integrity and intimate association.” The suits, which were filed on behalf of several plaintiffs seek monetary damages and the resumption of visitation.

Wanda Bertram is with the Prison Policy Initiative, a think-tank dedicated to criminal justice reform. In an interview with Michigan Public's Stateside, she argued that phone and video calls with people held in jail serve an important role for families. “That family contact is pretty essential for people's mental well-being, their physical wellbeing,” she said. “In addition, it contributes to people's success after they leave jail. It lowers recidivism rates.”

Bertram argued the inmate telephone industry is uncompetitive and in need of regulation. As a result, she says, families can end up incurring high costs. “If you think about folks who are calling their families multiple times a day, multiple times a week, it really does add up.”

Ultimately, she said, companies “are not setting the prices based on the cost of delivering the service. They're setting the prices based on profit-seeking.”

A spokesperson for ViaPath said the company "denies the allegations in the complaint and looks forward to the opportunity to defend the claims made against it. ViaPath's mission is to provide impactful communications, educational opportunities, and reintegration services to the incarcerated individual to help break the cycle of incarceration."

A spokesperson for Avenitv Technologies, the parent company of Securus, said, "the case against us in Michigan is misguided and without merit. We look forward to defending ourselves, and we will not let this suit detract from our successful efforts to create meaningful and positive outcomes for the consumers we serve."

A.J. Jones is a newsroom intern and graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Sources say he owns a dog named Taffy.
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