Lawsuits Accuse 2 Michigan Jails of Banning Family Visits to Increase Revenue


Two county jails in Michigan banned in-person family visits for inmates several years ago as a way to boost county revenues from the increased number of phone calls and electronic messaging that resulted, a pair of lawsuits filed this month claim.

The bans on in-person visits leave “electronic communications — phone and video calls and electronic messaging — as the sole way for the families of people detained in the jail to talk with their loved ones inside,” according to the lawsuits, which were filed on behalf of the families. The suits claim that officials in St. Clair County and Genesee County entered into a “quid pro quo kickback scheme” with Global Tel*Link Corporation and Securus Technologies.

Both companies denied any wrongdoing.

Jennifer Jackson-Luth, a spokesperson for Securus, called the lawsuit in which that company is named “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,” she said.

Global Tel*Link, which changed its name to ViaPath Technologies in 2022, said that it “denies the allegations in the complaint and looks forward to the opportunity to defend the claims made against it.”

Phone messages left with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office and to the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office this week were not returned.

The lawsuits claim that the family visit bans violate the Michigan Constitution, which “enshrines family integrity and intimate association.”

Cody Cutting, a lawyer with the Civil Rights Corps, one of the groups that filed the lawsuits against the two counties and the telecommunications corporations, said that “while a company paying a county hundreds of thousands of dollars for exclusive control over communication into and out of its jail is clearly problematic, we are unaware of any investigations into the practice.”

Genesee County enacted a “Family Visitation Ban” on Sept. 22, 2014, and St. Clair County began prohibiting in-person visits on Sept. 22, 2017, according to the lawsuits.

Genesee County originally had a deal with Securus Technologies, but switched to Global Tel*Link Corporation in 2018 at the direction of Christopher Swanson — who was undersheriff at the time and is now sheriff of Genesee County — for a deal that would make the county more money, according to the one of the lawsuits, which was filed in Circuit Court in Genesee County.

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That lawsuit quotes a jail captain explaining the reasoning for the switch. “‘GTL offers a set guaranteed commission that is more than the average monthly commission we currently get [from Securus],’” the unnamed captain said.

According to the lawsuit, “in total, the GTL agreement promises the county that it will receive at least $240,000 in incentive payments each year based on its current policies.”

Securus, which entered into a contract with St. Clair County in 2017, pays the county 50 percent of the $12.99 price tag for every 20-minute video call and 78 percent of the 21 cents per minute cost of every phone call as well as a “minimum guaranteed annual payment of $190,000 paid up front,” according to the lawsuit filed in Circuit Court in St. Clair County.

The two counties and the contracts involved in the lawsuits are a microcosm of a larger national problem, according to lawyers who filed the lawsuits.

For a long time, “kids have been able to visit with their parents in person and hug them and look into their eyes and touch them,” Leslie Bailey, one of the lawyers involved in the suits and the director of the Debtors’ Prison Project at Public Justice, a national legal advocacy nonprofit, said in an interview. “This is something that is increasingly going away in jails across the country.”

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit working to reduce mass incarceration in the country, reported in 2015 that “74 percent of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation.”

Mr. Cutting, the lawyer with the Civil Rights Corps, said that the “pre-existing trend” of replacing in-person visits with electronic communications “then accelerated as many more jails ended in-person visitation in response to the pandemic and never restored it.”

Ms. Bailey said that “if you look at the contract between counties and companies like Securus and GTL, you understand that it’s all about money.” She added, “We are suing for the right of kids to hug their parents, for the right of families to not be separated for profit.”

Tamar Watkins during a visit with his daughter during a special visit in Genesee County Jail.Credit…Martreanna Browning

Martreanna Browning, the mother of a 3-year-old named in the lawsuit, said in an interview that she had to take on a second job after her partner, Tamar Watkins, was transferred to the Genesee County Jail so that she could afford the communications with him.

“I just spent a lot of money,” she said. “I try not to add it up because I might go crazy.”

Ms. Browning said the video calls with Mr. Watkins have been hard on their daughter, who tries to play with him because “she thinks he’s here, but he’s not actually here.” In an affidavit, she said that “the video was pixelated, the lighting distorted his face, and the camera angle was unnatural.”

“In order for my daughter to have a relationship with her daddy, I have to sacrifice a lot of things,” she said in the interview. “So whatever it takes, I will do that, and he feels the same way also.”



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