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Tom Gores in spotlight again for telecom firm used in prison systems

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Gores has touted reforms since he took over, but less bad is still bad

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Tom Gores ties to the U.S. prison system is again getting media scrutiny as it would seem at odds with where the NBA and its players find themselves today — calling for social justice, the end of police brutality, and respect for black and brown bodies with Black Lives Matter prominently displayed on the courts within the bubble in Orlando and the league owners converting arenas into voting centers for the upcoming presidential election.

Those teams include the Pistons, who were actually one of the first franchises to announce a major voting initiative including turning Little Caesars Arena and the team’s performance center into voting locations.

It was a great move by the organization but it doesn’t erase the fact that Gores and his Platinum Equity own Aventiv Technologies and Securus Technologies, one of the leading contractors for telecom services within U.S. prisons — reportedly serving upward of 1.2 million incarcerated individuals via private contracts with prisons throughout the U.S.

The latest publication to shine a light on the issue is The American Prospect, which calls into question the silence coming from the league and its players regarding Gores being tied to, as writer David Dayen puts it “systemic abuses against people of color.”

That is, indeed, strong language, and Dayen pulls no punches in his assessment of Gores’ role in “capitalizing on mass incarceration.”

I’m not here to play the gotcha game. I believe and support the Detroit Pistons charitable work in Detroit, its calls for social justice and it’s voting initiatives. Nothing negates that good work. I’m not here for “whataboutisms” regarding the NBA taking a stand on police brutality while not being as forceful in speaking out about China.

I am here to reflect on what it means that the owner of my favorite team has a company whose customer base is people who are often black, often without adequate representation in the legal system, exploited in myriad ways through the criminal justice system and who have to pay for things I freely take advantage of every single day of my life.

As much as Tom Gores and Platinum Equity want to be “change agents” as Gores said in a letter to the FCC, being involved in this inherently rotten business is a mug’s game.

There is, quite simply, no form of “carbon neutral” when it comes to being a subcontractor for private and public prisons. If you’re in this business, you’re in the business to make money. Sure you can rake in profits in one hand while using your other to point out all the good you do. But it’s still just a magician’s sleight of hand. You are still in a business with a “fiduciary duty to investors,” which are Platinum Equity’s own words.

The American Prospect piece highlights, among other things, the pernicious way prisons are incentivized to turn to digital technologies before and after the COVID outbreak for prisoners to do anything — from video visitations replacing in-person visits (for a fee) to the need to purchase a “stamp” to send an email, to JPay tablets — which function as ways to consume media (for a fee) and create defacto bank accounts for inmates (for a fee).

Gores and those working with him at Platinum Equity, Aventiv and Securus push back against this notion of exploitation. In their telling, Gores and his partners took over a business in 2017 and installed a “transformative agenda” to make the services more equitable and less exploitative. I have no reason to think they believe anything else.

Platinum Equity points out that it does not run private prisons (true) and that there is a larger debate over mass incarceration (also true) while highlighting many initiatives undertaken and other parts of the Aventiv portfolio. These include but are not limited to:

  • The Lantern platform, which is billed s the “largest digital education program in corrections” supporting college courses, high school equivalency prep, GED prep and more
  • 83.6 million in free phone call minutes, 4.4 million free video connections, 5.6 million free email message stamps.
  • New leadership at Aventiv in January with the appointment of Dave Abel as president and CEO.
  • Reducing call cost by 30% in the past three years and an average call cost of $0.15 per minute including all fees and commissions
  • A clearer understanding of call rates
  • $3 million pledge to reducing recidivism rates and post-incarceration scholarship program

As a person and a fan, I take all that in and am left with one overarching thought — so what?

We are still at a fundamental truth, and that truth is — making something less bad doesn’t make it good.

There is another fundamental truth, though. A vacuum gets filled. And that is as true in The Marketplace (TM) as it is anywhere else. If Securus Technologies was not in the prison telecom space someone else would be. Perhaps that company would not be the “change agents” Gores has pledged himself and his partners to be, and would not be working to drive down rates or provide educational technology.

But history is full of actors justifying bad behavior, or standing by while others do awful things, by saying whatever replaces them would obviously be even worse. It’s a morally untenable justification, and one thing clear from the players taking the floor in the NBA is that they are desperate for moral clarity and moral leadership.

These are young black men who are scared for themselves, their kids, their families, and their friends. Being rich doesn’t disqualify you from being on the wrong end of mistreatment by law enforcement — just ask Sterling Brown or Thabo Sefolosha. And these are young men who know their lives could be profoundly different, and there are millions of people who look like but don’t have the protection that being a celebrity provides. They fight for them too.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t end with police interaction — it extends to the criminal justice process and the way the carceral system exploits people of color. And that includes any profit-making at the expense of people who often shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place.

And that leads us back to companies being in bad businesses professing to do good work. The ultimate goal as outline by Platinum Equity in its own words (emphasis mine):

Platinum Equity has invested considerable financial and operational resources in Securus with a demonstrable reform agenda that is lowering rates, reducing the company’s reliance on telecom, and developing new technologies, products and services that benefit incarcerated individuals. Our objective is to turn Securus into the most successful and the most responsible company in the industry, and then to divest it. If we succeed, we will have delivered a positive outcome for the company, its customers and the consumers it serves.

They are taking a bad company and making it less bad with plans to then spin that company off once it becomes “the most successful and the most responsible company in the industry.”

That industry, of course, is a private firm contracting with public and private prisons throughout the U.S. It is an industry that Tom Gores has chosen to make himself a part of. He does it with an eye toward being a “change agent.”

Maybe that is enough for you. Maybe you see all the good that will come years down the line. Maybe everything they are doing now is just fine and you would never stand between anyone and making a buck. Maybe you just don’t care and want the focus squarely on sports.

For me, though, there’s no good way to be in a bad business. There is no profit motive strong enough for me to look past the fundamental exploitation involved. A bad business is bad for business, and I hope Tom Gores sees that fundamental truth someday soon.