Why We Can’t Let Music Whitewash Prison Profiteering (Guest Column)

Jason Flom

Lava Records founder Jason Flom is best known as a one of the most successful label heads and A&R reps of the past 30 years, with top posts at Atlantic Records and Virgin-EMI, and founder of Lava Records, with a remarkably diverse track record of artists, ranging from Tori Amos and Katy Perry to Kid Rock and Lorde. Yet his longtime work in criminal justice has resulted in “Wrongful Conviction,” the widely popular podcast that he hosts about unjust incarcerations, and a podcast network,all under his Lava for Good  multimedia platform. Here, he addresses artists and music companies that are partnering with “web of private corporations and public institutions” profiting from the prison industry. 

I’ve been a music executive for more than four decades. And over that time, I’ve witnessed the power that music has to generate hope and inspire people. Creating music is an act of love and service.

Criminal justice work is similar. It too has the power to transform lives, and it is a cause that I have been deeply passionate and vocal about throughout my career. Through this work, I have the privilege of spending time with incarcerated people and their families, and I am grateful for what they have taught me, including the grave cost of incarceration.

The prison industry is a web of private corporations and public institutions that brings in more than $80 billion each year from a brutal system of mass caging and control that owes its roots to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the racialized terror that has continued since. It includes correctional industries that force unpaid labor, healthcare providers that deny people care, commissary vendors that overcharge for basic products, and others. It’s an industry that capitalizes on crime to exploit our most marginalized neighbors in their most difficult moment, driving many into debt, damaging family relationships, and undermining public safety.

So I was incredibly disappointed when I recently learned that music artists are partnering with telecom corporations in the prison industry. In speaking to people inside nearly every day, I can say with confidence that partnering with the industry that profits off incarceration is not the way to show support. As Bianca Tylek, Executive Director at Worth Rises and an advocate I trust deeply, has explained, “there is no pathway to hope through the prison industry.”

Prison telecom is a $1.4 billion industry dominated by just two corporations that charge families extortionate rates to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones. One of these corporations — the lead on the recent news — is Aventiv Technologies, which rakes in nearly $770 million a year through its notoriously predatory subsidiaries Securus and JPay.

Securus controls roughly 40 percent of the prison and jail telecom market and charges as much as a dollar per minute for a simple call. JPay charges similarly egregious rates for everything from money transfers to emails. Yes, incarcerated people pay for emails.

And both corporations routinely face legal action for an extensive list of unlawful practices. For example, Securus has repeatedly been exposed for abusive surveillance practices, including the unlawful recording of sacred attorney-client calls. Just last week, JPay was fined $6 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices.

I don’t just hear these horror stories from incarcerated people and their loved ones, I myself have had to use Securus and JPay and know the financial toll they inflict firsthand. Of course, I can afford the rates, but I know many cannot.

These corporations, and others in the prison industry, are the oft-overlooked villains in the story of many families fractured by the separation of incarceration. And to make matters worse, at every turn, they oppose activists fighting to connect families by trying to thwart efforts by executives, lawmakers, and regulators to curb their exploitation.

And yet, thankfully, courageous and determined families and advocates are still making headway to stop their predation. In recent years, New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles have all committed to providing free communication services to people in their jails. This summer, Connecticut became the first state to make prison calls free in a move that will save families more than $12 million annually. Last week, families and advocates in Massachusetts, who are currently paying more than $25 million for calls every year, testified in support of similar legislation.

These efforts, and many others, make it clear that there are ways to bring hope into prisons and jails and meaningfully stand with incarcerated people and their families that do not rely on legitimizing the prison industry. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. As music executives and artists, we should be looking to support these efforts, not cutting back-office deals with those undermining them and using weak talking points to defend ourselves to those impacted by our callous decisions.

The trauma that the prison industry inflicts, the wealth it extracts, and the lives it destroys devalue our social fabric and hurt us all. There is no way to redeem, explain, dismiss, or whitewash the harm it causes — and we shouldn’t try. The industry can’t turn over a new leaf when all its leaves are doused in blood. They made their billions exploiting incarcerated people and their families, and we cannot be complicit, complacent, or silent.

Today, I’m making a pledge not to collaborate with corporations that profit from incarceration (click this link for more information). And I urge my fellow music executives and artists to join me. We will not do business with the prison industry because we must all be in the business of dismantling it.