This field-based case examines the business strategy of prison communications company Aventiv Technologies (Aventiv), which was at the center of a broad national debate about social justice, criminal justice, race, and mass incarceration in 2021. The US incarceration rate had grown over the 25 years leading up to 2021, resulting in significant growth in incarcerated individuals, prisons, corrections facility budgets, and prison-related spending by inmates and their families. Deregulation of the national telecommunications market in the 1980s had led to a raft of communications firms competing for lucrative prison contracts. Prison and jail operators valued not only the telecommunications platform and the service it provided to inmates and their families, but also the commissions they received in the contracts, which helped to fund their budgets. This industry structure led to mostly rising telecommunications prices being passed on to inmates and their families, even while telecom prices outside of prison had plummeted. Inmates and their families wanted the highest degree of access at the lowest possible price, particularly at a time when the world was recovering from a pandemic. The case provides rich data for students to consider fundamental questions like: Is the current system fair to all stakeholders? Who should pay for prison communications—inmates and their families or the taxpayer? Under what corporate conditions is it possible to do good and do well?
Criminal-justice advocates had worked for years to push back against the high price of inmate communications, which they argued caused loved ones to cut off contact with the inmate in order to save money—something that could contribute to mental health issues and increase recidivism. In 2021, the issue seemed to be coming to a head. Aventiv, which had grown through acquisition to become one of the largest prison communication providers (40% market share), had been bought in 2017 by Platinum Equity (Platinum), which was soon targeted by activists for change. In response, Platinum had pledged to make existing telecommunications products more affordable and accessible. It also planned to expand Aventiv beyond telecommunications and into tablet and related technology that would offer education, entertainment, job training, and post-incarceration products and services that would benefit inmates on the inside and help reduce recidivism once they were released. The transformation program represented a significant decision by Platinum to lean into the issues facing the industry, rather than run away from them. Change in prison telecommunications was coming. But because of the competitive nature of the industry and the multijurisdictional contracts with commissions, it was unlikely to be easy. The question for students is, can Platinum and Aventiv lead the change in prison and private equity? And what kind of change works for all stakeholders?