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Detroit Pistons Owner Urged To Sell Team Over His Investment In Prison Telecom Firm


The company Securus offers telephone services to prisons. It has faced criticism for price-gouging incarcerated people and their families for phone calls, and now that controversy has trickled over into the NBA. Tom Gores, the owner of the Detroit Pistons, also founded a private equity firm, which owns Securus. Now the activist group Worth Rises is accusing Gores of profiting off incarcerated people and accusing the NBA of hypocrisy. The group took out a full-page ad in Sunday's New York Times and wrote a letter to the NBA saying Gore should either sell the Pistons or divest from Securus. Bianca Tylek is the executive director of Worth Rises.


BIANCA TYLEK: Hello. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: To start at the most basic level, what is your concern about the prison telecom company Securus?

TYLEK: I think the most obvious thing is the cost. Everyone talks about the grave cost of services of these phone calls that families are paying for. One in three families goes into debt that is trying to stay in touch with someone who is incarcerated; 87% of those are women, largely women of color. But it's not just the cost. It's also the partnership that Securus has with law enforcement. So millions of those dollars that are being extracted from Black, brown, low-income communities are actually being given to law enforcement, to sheriff's departments to run their jails. And on top of all of that, they're recording phone calls for people who are awaiting trial because they can't afford bail. Those phone calls are being turned over to prosecutors. There is a deep collaboration here between Securus and law enforcement in addition to the grave exploitation that the company does in communities deeply impacted by mass incarceration.

SHAPIRO: Just on the issue of price, Platinum Equity says that it will restructure Securus and has made reductions in the rates that it offers for calls. Have those changes addressed any of your concerns about price?

TYLEK: Not at all, unfortunately. They have addressed a few of their most egregious - and when we say most egregious, we're talking about rates that, until earlier this year, were as much as $25 for a simple 15-minute phone call. They reduced some of those most egregious rates down to $15 for a 15-minute phone call. The reality is that it's still too expensive for families to communicate with their loved ones.

SHAPIRO: I understand your organization has tried to negotiate directly with Gores and his private equity firm. Tell us what happened.

TYLEK: We've actually spent almost two years in conversation with Tom Gores and his firm. And unfortunately, in all that time, very little changed. And in fact, in January of this year, those conversations dried up when Platinum Equity abruptly stopped communicating after canceling a meeting between Tom and families who are directly impacted by Securus' predatory business.

SHAPIRO: We reached out for comment to Gores and the Pistons. We got a statement back from Mark Barnhill, who is a partner at the firm Platinum Equity and an alternate on the NBA's board of governors. And the statement says, all of Tom's personal profits from this investment will be directed towards achieving reform. It also notes, we are collaborating with a broad coalition of groups and individuals on the sweeping transformation of Securus Technologies. And it adds, Worth Rises has been invited to join in that collaboration but has declined in favor of shouting from an isolated fringe, referring to your organization. How do you respond to that?

TYLEK: So the first thing I want to say is that Mark and I actually spent many, many, many months in conversation. We sat down to lunch together. I heard about where his daughter was going to college, so I think this notion that, you know, we've been shouting for a long time is clearly not true. I think secondly, I want to note that these profits that Tom claims he's no longer taking personally is to misrepresent the situation. He owns the firm that owns the company. There is no way for him not to benefit and profit off of this situation. And thirdly, it is a misrepresentation to suggest that they're convening a coalition. They are speaking to one organization that is, in fact, a partner of ours and who we've been in deep collaboration with. And we've supported that conversation. And I think the last thing I'll just say is they didn't, in fact, invite us into that conversation until we went to the NBA.

SHAPIRO: Bianca Tylek is founder and executive director of the advocacy group Worth Rises.

Thank you for talking with us.

TYLEK: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: We also asked the NBA for comment. And they told us in a statement that they have been in regular contact with Tom Gores about Worth Raises' concerns and, quote, "we support their efforts to address these important issues."

(SOUNDBITE OF AYDIO'S "DELTITNU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.