Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Vendor protests prison communications contract 

May 6, 2022 7:00 am
Morgan County Correctional Complex (Photo: TN.gov)

Morgan County Correctional Complex (Photo: TN.gov)

A company beaten out of a Tennessee prisons communications contract is challenging the state’s decision, claiming it is awarding the deal to a competitor that will charge inmates and families about $7 million more.

Securus Technologies LLC lost an initial protest after the state gave the contract for inmate communications and technology services to Global Tel Link Corp., but Securus is seeking a new hearing to reverse the decision.

The company claims the state’s chief procurement office, which is in charge of handling contracts, “thumbed its nose at hundreds of years of undisputable public procurement law” by making an unfair comparison of bidders, favoring Global Tel Link and enabling it to make “millions in revenue to the detriment of the inmates and their families,” according to a document challenging the state’s decision.

Global Tel Link’s bid is based on charging five cents per minute for access to media such as eBooks, games, movies and music while Securus is proposing a one-time fee for eBooks, games, movies and more than 50,000 free eBooks. The contract also covers inmate phone systems, standard visitation phones, a video visitation system, inmate and general public kiosks and electronic account trust deposits.

After losing a bid to provide communications services for Tennessee’s prisons, a technology company is challenging the state’s procurement process, alleging the company that was awarded the contract will end up costing inmates and their families millions of dollars.

The technology is used in part for educational resources and entertainment, fitting with Gov. Bill Lee’s outlook on rehabilitating prisoners before they return to the outside world. Yet Securus contends the governor’s “criminal justice and prison reform efforts have been thrown out the window” because of the bidding process.

“This will cost inmates and their families millions of dollars more than they would have to pay if (the chief procurement office) had not ignored procurement law and performed an apples-to-apples comparison,” the Securus complaint states.

The chief procurement office “unrealistically” assumed inmates would spend only 10 minutes a day using communication tablets, which would cost $3.48 million a year and $17.4 million over the life of the five-year contract, according to the Securus challenge.

If inmates use their tablets for only 20 minutes a day, the cost would be $34 million for five years, Securus contends. 

In contrast, Securus’ costs would be $9.78 million over five years, according to the state’s projections, saving $7.6 million, the company claims.

Securus also contends the Global Tel Link contract will generate more revenue for the state, as well as for Praeses, a consultant that wrote the request for proposals and defined the criteria for scoring bids. It will net about 10% of the contract, according to the Securus challenge.

Michael Perry, chief procurement officer for the state, rejected Securus’ protest, saying the company failed to adjust its bid based on a change in the request for proposals and also omitted some of the information needed for the bid.

Perry’s letter, which is extremely technical, does not address the total costs projected by Securus but says the company depends on some “inaccuracies” to make its case. 

A Department of Correction spokeswoman declined to give an explanation this week, saying the contract had not been awarded yet. A spokeswoman for the Department of General Services would only say that the case is going before a protest committee and that no public statements could be made until the matter is resolved.

State Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, says it appears to be a “fixed contract already.”

“You have something that’s gonna save families millions of dollars because when someone goes to jail, in essence their whole family goes to jail with them or they do that time with them,” Dixie says. “So if they can save the most marginalized people money so they can just communicate with their loved one while they’re in prison, why wouldn’t we find the most cost-effective way to do that?”

The situation is exacerbated, the Nashville Democrat says, by a truth-in-sentencing bill the Legislature passed that runs counter to Lee’s criminal justice reform efforts and will keep violent offenders in prison for 100% of their terms. 

The governor chose not to sign the bill into law, letting it take effect without his signature. In a letter to the bill’s sponsors, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, told them he disagreed with its premise, according to the Tennessee Journal. 

You have something that’s gonna save families millions of dollars because when someone goes to jail, in essence their whole family goes to jail with them or they do that time with them. . .If they can save the most marginalized people money . . . why wouldn't we find the most cost-effective way to do that?

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair, House Democratic Caucus

Lee said previous similar efforts led to “operational and financial strain with no reduction in crime.” He noted that evidence shows the policy will cause more crime, a higher rate of return to prison and overcrowding, which bring higher costs, according to the letter. He chose, however, not to veto the bill.

Regardless, Dixie, a bail bondsman, says he can’t figure out why the state would award the contract to a company that appears to be the high bidder, adding “That’s the million-dollar question.” Typically, the state goes with the lowest bid that can provide the best service, he adds. 

“This prison game, when you think about some of the bills we passed, like the truth-in-sentencing that’s gonna keep people in jail longer and then you start to add these type of contracts in there, it begs the question: Is it public safety that we’re after or is it profits for the state or private companies or the friends of powerful people,” Dixie says.

The matter could be considered by the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee if the lawmakers who chair the panel request it. The contract isn’t expected to go to the Fiscal Review Committee because it went through a bidding process.

But lawmakers are keeping an eye on this contract to see how it turns out.

On the road to nowhere

A squabble over legislation that would have directed a TennCare contract for Medicaid-Medicare enrollees to one company is done for this year.

The House passed legislation last week requiring a study of TennCare’s decision not to continue contracting with Centene, Cigna and Humana for insurance services to thousands of people in the state program for the poor. Those three lost out in the bidding process as TennCare selected three other managed care organizations to handle “dual enrollees.”

That move came when state Rep. Charlie Baum, a Murfreesboro Republican, amended the bill amid complaints it would have required the state to contract with Centene, the country’s largest Medicaid managed care company, even though it didn’t win the contract and had a shoddy track record across the country.Logo for Centene Corporation.

From the outset, though, the bill was on tough footing in the Senate, where it was sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Senate leadership expressed serious concerns about the bill, and the Chattanooga Republican declined to bring it to the floor for a vote. 

Some legislators called the legislation a form of “bid-rigging,” and Gardenhire had strong reservations about advancing a bill to give Centene a contract it didn’t win.

The House passed the bill unanimously in its final week. But the legislation never saw the light of day in the Senate chamber and probably had little to do with news reports.

Shuffling welfare around

Sitting on a $755 million reserve fund after years of hoarding federal money, the Department of Human Services is preparing to make $25 million grants to seven nonprofits statewide to provide services to the state’s neediest residents.

Rather than send cash payments directly to people who are struggling to survive, as is done under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, Tennessee will dole out the money through “opportunity grants” to these groups, which will run pilot programs, Gov. Bill Lee announced Thursday.

“This is an important day, an exciting day as we work to strengthen families in Tennessee, strengthen to build self-sufficiency for families in Tennessee,” Lee said in a Thursday press conference.

Family Matters in West Tennessee, the University of Memphis, Family and Children Service in Middle Tennessee, Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency in Middle Tennessee, First Tennessee Development District Foundation in East Tennessee, United Way of Greater Knoxville and the Martha O’Bryan Center in Middle Tennessee will receive the grants.

It must be noted the Legislature wouldn’t have come up with the proposal if reporters hadn’t gotten their hands on a report a couple of years ago showing the state had this ridiculous reserve fund. In response, lawmakers boosted cash payments in 2021 to recipients by about $100, providing needy families $387 a month, about enough to rent a fancy deer stand in West Tennessee.

But that’s where the money dries up. 

“These community designed and driven grants will test the hypothesis of our vision of growing capacity to reduce dependency,” said Department of Human Resources Commissioner Clarence Carter.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson (Photo:John Partipilo)
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson (Photo:John Partipilo)

Slowly, but surely, the reserve will be whittled down over the next three years, even though it’s boosted annually with more than $180 million from the feds.

According to Sen. Bo Watson, who chaired a legislative panel that oversaw the plan to spend the reserve money, pilot programs that work the best will be kept and others will be dropped.

An inspector general will make sure every dollar is spent correctly. That’s what it will take, because some nonprofits – despite their sacred cow status – can spend money faster than a drunken sailor. 

Where is Ronald Reagan?

Booted off the ticket for the Republican primary in the newly-drawn 5th Congressional District, Franklin’s Robby Starbuck Newsom is suing.

Kids used to shout, “Swing, batter, swing,” in little league baseball. When they grow up, or at least get older, they say, “Sue, lawyer, sue.” 

Anyway, Starbuck’s bonafides were questioned months ago, even before a group made up of the Tennessee Republican Party’s State Executive Committee, plus Chairman Scott Golden, axed him, along with Morgan Ortagus and Baxter Lee.

President Reagan urged Republicans never to speak ill of each other, but Starbuck is going off the B-actor script.

“The state party is trying to go beyond the scope of what they’re allowed to do by kicking a bonafide Republican like me off the ballot,” Starbuck said in a release this week. “It’s the same sort of backroom trickery they tried to use against Trump in 2016 at the Republican convention – which is ironic since the state party is trying to get the next Republican convention to Nashville.”

“This is not community Cuba, where my family escaped from,” said former GOP 5th Congressional District candidate Robby Starbuck of the Tennessee Republican Party in a statement.

Starbuck goes on to claim the party is disenfranchising voters, and he demands a reversal. 

That’s funny, I recall the Tennessee Democratic Party saying the same thing this year when the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the 5th District, splitting Davidson County into three districts and creating a rambling district that looks like a T-Rex running across the mid-state.

“This is not communist Cuba, where my family escaped from,” Starbuck continued. “In America, the party doesn’t get to just select candidates that they like – the people get to elect the candidate they want on Election Day.”

Sorry, dude, this might not be Cuba, but the Republican Party has been booting people right and left lately, and so have the Democrats. If they don’t like you, you’re gone.

Death penalty snafu

Gov. Lee postponed all executions this year for an independent review after the state detected a protocol bungle in the pending lethal injection of death row inmate Oscar Smith.

The governor appointed former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to investigate the process for lethal injections, including the state’s manual and Department of Correction staffing. He’ll also determine whether the state might have gone through incorrect procedures in previous executions.

Smith was set to be put to death last week, but the governor postponed the execution after finding out the process was flawed.

Sounds sort of like a real-life replay of Monster’s Ball, minus Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton.

Apparently, tests for endotoxins in the lethal injection were not conducted.

“My concern is that in this one it wasn’t followed correctly and therefore we ought to make certain it’s followed correctly from this point on,” Lee told reporters this week.

No camping – well, maybe

The governor declined to sign the Legislature’s bill prohibiting camping on public property, allowing it to become law automatically after 10 days on his desk. 

The bill by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, and Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, was criticized this year for taking unnecessary shots at the homeless, who might not have any other place to sleep than on a sliver of public land.

Even though it could turn the homeless into criminals, proponents said it would help churches and other homeless advocacy groups direct the homeless to services and get them off the streets.

Lee said Thursday he’s concerned about “unintended consequences” such as “criminalizing the homeless with felonies” and “inconsistent enforcement.” 

Rep. Ryan Willians, R-Cookeville, sponsored the bill to make camping on public property a criminal offense. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Ryan Willians, R-Cookeville, sponsored the bill to make camping on public property a criminal offense. (Photo: John Partipilo)

He’s looking at the implications. But the question is: If he disagrees, why not veto?

“I think we do need to protect our parks and our public spaces,” Lee said Thursday, “and make sure they’re being used for what they’re intended for, and camping is not what they’re intended to be used for.”

When you’ve got no place to go, though, where do you go?

Maybe the governor’s hoping police officers will quickly look away.

The other answer: It takes a two-thirds request of the House and Senate through the speakers to hold a special session, and we don’t want to risk the General Assembly coming back to town for a long time.

“I ain’t missing you at all/ Since you’ve been gone away.”

OK, you’re right, that song is pretty mushy. John Waite was better with The Babys. And some people think we’ve had enough of silly love songs. What’s wrong with that?



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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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