One of the largest telecom providers in the US and formerly named CenturyLink, Lumen was a leading provider of telecom services to US prisons until 2021.
Lumen Technologies, formerly CenturyLink, is a Monroe, Louisiana-based telecommunications and technology company that provides voice, broadband, and video services to residential, business, government, and wholesale customers.
Until 2021, Lumen was one of the leading providers of telecommunication services to U.S. prisons. The company entered the industry in 2008 by acquiring Embarq Corporation and setting up CenturyLink Public Communications as its prison phone subsidiary. It was the third-largest provider of phone services to U.S. prisons until 2020, when it started divesting from the prison industry.
The company's business model was to provide prisons only with telecom infrastructure and to subcontract other prison phones companies, i.e., Securus Technologies and Inmate Calling Solutions (ICSolutions), as its public-facing partners, to provide the software, handle payment collection, etc. In 2020, while rebranding as Lumen, the company began selling off its prison phone business to ICSolutions and Securus, a process it completed in 2021.
In May 2020, Lumen requested consent from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to sell CenturyLink Public Communications to ICSolutions. At the time, the company held contracts with prison authorities in 14 states, with ICSolutions as the public-facing subcontractor on all but one Texas Department of Criminal Justice contract. The FCC approved the sale in August 2020. In June 2021, Lumen requested the transfer of its remaining contract with Texas to Securus, its subcontractor there. The FCC permitted the transfer in August 2021, stating that with it, the company "would completely exit the inmate calling services market."
Lumen's divestment furthers the consolidation of the prison phone industry into the hands of a few private equity firms.
Past Prison Phone Business
Until 2021, CenturyLink provided phone and video services to prisons and jails in at least 14 U.S. states. In 2020, at the time it sold most of its prison phone business to ICSolutions, CenturyLink held contracts with prison authorities in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. It provided phone services to prisons holding more than 300,000 people as of 2015.
The costs associated with prisons phone calls vary by state and contract. In most states, individuals are charged for creating and adding money to "inmate telephone accounts," in addition to being charged monthly account maintenance fees. When CenturyLink was the sole provider of telecommunication services to state prisons in Arizona, communicating with an incarcerated person could cost up to $180 per month. Prior to a 2018 reduction in the cost of prison phone calls in Texas, CenturyLink's prices for the Texas prisons it serviced were set at $4 per 15-minute phone call.
Some of this overcharging became the company's profit, while some of it was funneled back to the prison authorities as commissions or kickbacks. Such commissions were written into many of CenturyLink's contracts. For example, the company gave 93.9% of the price of calls back to the Arizona Department of Corrections.
In addition to its phone services, CenturyLink provided prisons with video visitation services. In Florida, where it provided video visitation services to Santa Rosa County Jail, CenturyLink charged 50 cents per minute, and gave 15% of phone call costs back to the jail's fund for "prisoner re-entry programs and staffing."
CenturyLink identified FCC regulations as risks to its business, as they could cause contract termination and loss of revenue. The company aggressively lobbied against FCC rules capping the costs of interstate and international prison phone rates and attacked them as being "wholly unrealistic." In 2013 and 2015, CenturyLink sued the FCC for its decision to cap the cost of interstate prison phone calls and reduce costs for in-state prison phone calls. In 2017, a court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to cap in-state call rates, and so the agency's decisions were not implemented.