By Kalena Thomhave | Apr 03, 2019
Last year, two prison phone company giants, Securus and Inmate Calling Solutions (ICS) announced they planned to merge, sparking concerns of duopoly in an industry already dominated by a just a few major players. Such consolidation has long impacted poor people and those of color disproportionately, along with their families, as prison phone companies charge exorbitant rates for inmates who have few alternatives. If approved, the merger threatened to put more than three-quarters of the market in the hands of just two companies, Securus and Global Tel Link. But yesterday, Securus withdrew its application to buy ICS after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated that they would not approve it.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai, normally not one to raise concerns over corporate consolidation, said in a statement that:
Based on a record of nearly one million documents comprised of 7.7 million pages of information submitted by the applicants, as well as arguments and evidence submitted by criminal justice advocates, consumer groups, and other commenters, FCC staff concluded that this deal posed significant competitive concerns and would not be in the public interest.
That line about the “criminal justice advocates” is important: groups such as the Prison Policy Institute, the Wright Petitioners, Worth Rises, and others have highlighted for months how the merger would affect prisoners, including through filings submitted to the FCC. Because the two largest companies in the industry would no longer be competing with each other, the merger would have likely meant even more expensive phone calls for prisoners and their families who only want to speak to each other while separated. Even now, without the merger, these calls can be incredibly expensive—sometimes up to a $1 per minute. These costs often fall on families of the incarcerated, who, like their imprisoned family member, tend to be very poor.
“Every day, these companies profit off of the separation of families and communities by exploiting the natural need for human connection. This win gets us closer to stopping them,” executive director of prisoner advocacy group Worth Rises Bianca Tylek said in a statement.
What’s next? Perhaps it’s time to make those prison phone calls free.
America’s most liberal state government has a far-reaching plan to do just that. But does it have the will to enact it?Kalena ThomhaveApr 02, 2019
It’s a necessary step in identifying progressives’ tax priorities.Kalena ThomhaveMar 18, 2019
By Kalena Thomhave | Mar 11, 2019
On Monday, The New York Times reported that the federal government was exploring ways to use social media to crack down on instances of disability fraud, even as applications for disability benefits fall.
This is not the first time that the government has looked to social media to investigate welfare fraud—in fact, such an intrusion of privacy is actually quite key to the history of public assistance programs. Back in the 1960s, welfare officials would regularly make unannounced home visits (sometimes even “midnight raids”) to women receiving traditional cash benefits to see if they lived in accordance with welfare eligibility rules. If there was, for example, evidence of a “man in the house” (no matter the casualness of the relationship), the woman would be denied her benefits.
While raids and inspections like these have generally been ruled unconstitutional, the state has turned to the internet to regulate the poor. It’s not uncommon for state governments to scan social media for instances of “welfare fraud,” which is, it is necessary to note, exceedingly rare.
The Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state is very clear on its website that it “focus[es] on the use of social media to identify EBT card misuse.” What they likely mean is that extremely poor people will often try to sell their measly food stamp funds—which can only be used to purchase food—in order to get a smaller amount of cash. This investigative program is operated by a federal grant that created a partnership between the federal Office of Family Assistance and law enforcement “to hire additional investigators and carry out online sting operations.” Indeed, Washington’s DSHS even celebrated the arrest of someone trying to trade their drugs for EBT funds. The agency’s press release began ominously, “Note to would-be food benefits traffickers. You’re being watched.”
Even the most progressive of local governments—like that of the District of Columbia—devote substantial attention and resources to cracking down on the ever-elusive welfare fraud. The reason that “program integrity”—the fancy way to talk about fraud—is such a priority even for progressives is so that they can pre-empt conservative arguments about people who use welfare who are seen as undeserving. (I would argue that’s not a battle that can be won.)
The federal government scanning disability recipients’ social media goes a step further than checking Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace. Under the new plan that the administration is developing, federal officials would look for evidence on personal social media pages to determine whether a person receiving disability insurance is disabled. Distasteful as the proposal is, it is also ridiculous—not to mention offensive—to assume that disability (especially mental illness) can be so easily detected.
“Just because someone posted a photograph of them golfing or going fishing in February of 2019 does not mean that the activity occurred in 2019,” Lisa D. Ekman, chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, told the Times. And regardless, the experience of disability is so varied and personal it should not be up to the government to decide whether a person is or is not actually disabled enough for them to work. Laughably, the Trump administration pointed to telework—which some of its agencies are actively reducing—as a reason that fewer people should receive disability benefits. (Telework, of course, is not a possibility in every job—especially low-wage jobs.)
The dichotomy between those who are deserving and undeserving of public benefits, with the government as arbiter, lies at the foundation of the American social safety net. The plan to police personal social media accounts is an invasion of privacy—but it’s nothing that low-income people haven’t always experienced.