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- Companies often double-down on new digital tools like artificial intelligence as a way to better compete against rivals or standout in a crowded sector. But for Securus Technologies CEO Dave Abel, investment in automation and other tech is part of a broader plan to rehabilitate the company’s image.
- The firm, which provides communication tools for inmates and is owned by the private equity firm of billionaire Tom Gores, has faced heavy criticism over the prices it charges prison inmates, among other things.
- Abel says the firm’s digital transformation — like automating some customer service functions — will end up lowering prices.
- “We believe that the incarcerated community is worthy of the investment of capital,” he told Business Insider. “We believe they’re worthy of technology.”
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When IBM-veteran Dave Abel took over as CEO of Aventiv Technologies in January 2020, he promised sweeping reforms that aimed to rehabilitate the company’s tarnished image.
It was a tall order. Aventiv — more specifically, its subsidiary Securus, which provides the tech for prison inmates to communicate with their friends, families, and attorneys — has a troubled history. Its business practices are often referenced as part of the prison industrial complex, wherein it exploits inmates for the sake of profits.
“The overarching goal of our transformation is to align our company with the values of society overall,” Abel told Business Insider in an exclusive interview. “Making the personnel changes upfront is pretty easy, making the cultural changes certainly take more time.”
Among Securus’s specific track record is a data breach in 2015 that exposed the records of 70 million calls. The same year, Securus was forced to publicly say it would remove a clause in some contracts that “could be perceived as restricting onsite and/or person-to-person contact” after the Prison Policy Initiative uncovered that some contracts mandated that prison customers limit visits from family members to video-only.
A number of lawsuits have also alleged that Securus illegally recorded calls between inmates and their attorneys (such communications are generally deemed privileged communication under federal law), and earlier this year, the company paid $3.7 million to settle such a suit brought by 750 attorneys in Kansas. In another case in California, Securus agreed to halt recording of calls for numbers on an approved list.
But perhaps most significantly, the company has been under intense public criticism, as well as legal challenges, for the costs it imposes on inmates — sometimes as high as $15.99 for a 15-minute call, according to class action lawsuits. The controversy even extended to the private equity firm Platinum Equity, which owns Securus. Activists have described Tom Gores, billionaire owner of the Detroit Pistons who runs the firm, as a “prison profiteer.”
Now, nearly halfway into new CEO Abel’s first year, he talks about the company’s progress while readily admitting that more has to be done.
Among other steps, Securus signed new contracts that reduced the average call costs to 15 cents a minute — a 30% cut, according to the company. Abel is hoping to reduce that by another 15%, but said that it’s impossible to change the cost of all of its products immediately due to existing, long-term contracts with some clients. It also pledged to eliminate outlier rates that the firm says contributed to some of the high prices that customers experienced.
And a key part of the transformation is investment in new digital tools, which Abel says will help lower the cost of calls even more and improve inmates’ transitions back into society.
Historically, Aventiv invests roughly $50 million annually in updating older IT infrastructure and developing new products. In 2020, the company deployed an additional $30 million for technology, part of Abel’s mission to double-down on digital as a way to address long-standing complaints against Securus.
“We believe that the incarcerated community is worthy of the investment of capital. We believe they’re worthy of technology,” he added. “Part of our transformation has been convincing and demonstrating to the leadership of our company and within our company that digital transformation has the opportunity for us to refocus personnel in the organization to create greater value.”
Investing in tech to lower costs
Seucurus has already launched some of its new tech changes to the market. The company recently rolled-out an Android-based tablet for prisons that promises better WiFi connectivity and battery life for inmates, which Abel says is the “first introduction of new tablet technology in a number of years from any company in this market.”
Alongside improved communication, Abel says the new devices will also help inmates access better educational materials, like eBooks or downloadable movies.
“The volume of stuff moving through this very secure environment has increased,” he said. “We have put a lot of money and attention on developing a stronger infrastructure for delivery of that content as well.”
From an internal perspective, Securus hired its first chief security officer and invested heavily in cybersecurity “to raise the confidence in the protection of information inside our organization and the information that we have to manage outside of the organization,” said Abel.
And like many other companies, Securus is also looking to automate a sizable portion of its customer service function — which Abel says is producing some “early returns” on investment. Many of the more basic inquiries can now be handled entirely by machines, for example, with humans only have to jump-in to interact with customers in more complicated cases.
“Automation is not a headcount reduction mechanism: Automation is a quality improvement mechanism,” he said.
These kinds of technology changes will not only help Securus cut costs for customers, but also help it keep its own margins steady even as its customer base decreases, which the firm expects to happen. “We have a commitment to reduce recidivism,” Abel said. “And we have a strategy in our company for us to be a strong, capable, growing provider of services with the assumption of a decrease in total incarcerated population in the United States.”
While steps have been taken to turn the company around, it’s evident there is still more work to be done. Securus, for example, provided 26 million free calls during the coronavirus pandemic, but some inmates are still spending hundreds of dollars a month to talk to their loved ones.
To critics who might say the changes don’t go far enough or doubt the firm’s commitment to actually lowering costs, Abel has one message.
“We have a responsibility to continuously improve the products and services that we offer to our facility customers and to our consumers,” he said. “It’s a simple statement. We live and breathe it every day.”