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Pistons owner Tom Gores reaffirms commitment to reform controversial prison phone company

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Clarification: Prison reform activist group Worth Rises placed the full-page ad in the New York Times on Dec. 20. Bianca Tylek is the founder and executive director of Worth Rises.

It’s a simple question directed to the majority team owners of each of the NBA franchises: “If Black lives matter, what are you doing about Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores?”

The question, posed by Worth Rises, an activist group for prison reform, wasn’t in a conversation in a coffee house or simply yelled in an outdoor protest.

It was in a full-page ad in the New York Times on Dec. 20.

Tom Gores

The message was addressed to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the majority owners of the 29 other NBA franchises, all mentioned by name.

The center of the issue is Securus Technologies, one of the many companies owned by Gores’ multi-billion-dollar private-equity firm, Platinum Equity. In 2017, Platinum Equity acquired Securus, one of the industry leaders in providing telecommunications to incarcerated individuals, for $1.6 billion.

Securus and GTL (Global Tel Link) are the two largest providers of telecommunications services to prisons and have been criticized for their exorbitant rates for phone calls — and the burden of that cost is held by the families, who are struggling even more to keep in contact with their friends and loved ones during the pandemic.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, a former executive director of the NAACP and current president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which advocates for the publishers of more than 200 Black-owned newspapers, commented on Securus’ work in trying to work toward reform in the industry.

“(Gores) appears to have undertaken an effort to change some of the problematic business practices that have long plagued the correctional telecom industry. At the beginning of this year Gores brought in a new CEO for Securus, who committed to lowering their prices and improving the services they provide to incarcerated Americans,” Chavis wrote in an op-ed this month.

“If you approach such a promise with a healthy dose of skepticism, you’re not alone — especially knowing the history of this industry. But for the moment, Securus seems to be making good on its promises.”

Those promises for reform include reducing rates for phone calls by 30% over the past three years. Securus’ parent company, Aventiv Technologies has committed to reducing rates by another 15% over the next three years.

According to Aventiv’s transformation plan, the rates for phone calls are below $0.15 per minute on average and the company is contributing $3 million to reducing repeat offenders and creating post-incarceration scholarship programs to help offenders complete post-secondary degrees.

A quarterly report for Aventiv obtained by The Detroit News shows that although there is $360 million in cash invested in the company, there has been no profit extracted (realized proceeds) from that investment.

Bianca Tylek, the founder and executive director of Worth Rises, is mobilizing a call for the NBA’s Board of Governors to do more.

“Basketball fans trust the NBA and its owners to be cultural stewards, a responsibility that should not be taken lightly,” Worth Rises wrote. “The clear assertion during the 2019-2020 season that Black Lives Matter suggests that the NBA Board of Governors understands this responsibility, but its relationship with Gores undermines its sincerity.”

Gores addressed the issue with local media this week and said that they will do more to communicate their efforts in reform and to make an increased impact on the industry.

“I just think this is a unique opportunity for me and us to impact our country and the world. Because it's not really about this one company; it's about an industry that really does need to change. We've recognized it, but we've been doing it also,” Gores said. “One thing you guys know about us is you may not always agree with our basketball decisions, but I think we'll always do right by the community…

“It's a company we bought, and as we kind of dig in and see what's there, there's a lot of reform required that nobody has had the guts or the courage to actually push. The industry is taking note of us and I think just on our end, just be patient.”

Although there have been calls for Gores to sell Securus, he seems to be in it for the long haul. Though most private equity firms look to revive businesses and sell for the biggest profit, Platinum Equity seems to be positioning itself to be a reform agent.

“People have asked me if I should sell the company. No, why would I walk away where we can make change?” Gores said. “You guys will hear more about it. But, in a nutshell, we're going to treat it like the community in Detroit — dig in, see where there's reform required, which we've already been doing, and just go at it and go to work.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard