Dave Abel was using the phone on Sept. 11, 2001.
Working for PricewaterhouseCoopers, he was discussing a business trip scheduled for the following day.
While looking out his Arlington, Va., office window, he watched in horror as an American Airlines plane flew into the Pentagon.
The evacuation order came, but before leaving, he looked out the window again and turned his glance downward.
He saw a swarm of people walking across the Francis Scott Key Bridge, trying to escape Washington D.C.
The next day, Abel and PwC colleagues went to work, tasked with protecting the United States’ aviation system.
After the unthinkable 9/11 terrorist attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 victims, Abel worked for teams at PwC and IBM that were integral to the the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, which is charged with protecting the traveling public.
After more than a year with Securus Technologies, Abel can recall a career with many examples of business – along with governing bodies – improving outcomes for the public.
“It cannot be done without the participation between those two,” Abel told Platinum Equity recently.
He called public-private partnerships “absolutely essential.”
That is one reason he was tasked to lead the transformation of Securus, a prison communications firm acquired by Platinum in 2017. In January, he was promoted to CEO of Aventiv Technologies and its subsidiary, Securus.
The goal is to establish Securus, which provides services to approximately 3,500 correctional facilities in all 50 states, as a change agent and industry leader in terms of best practices.
A complex task.
According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit working to ensure a fair and just criminal justice system, the U.S. has imprisoned 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years.
By providing needed services to more than 1.2 million incarcerated individuals across North America, Securus has the juggling act of balancing the needs of its customers (local governments) and consumers (the incarcerated).
The company has drawn the ire of activists critical of the prison industrial complex.
Predatory phone rates, faulty technology and privacy concerns are among the issues cited by activists; some are calling for Platinum to divest from its investment.
The company has responded aggressively to address those issues under the leadership of Platinum and Abel.
Over the course of two interviews with Platinum, Abel, 51, eagerly discussed the past and the path forward.
Many topics were addressed. It is clear Abel thinks the company is on the right path.
But he concedes there is still much work to do.
(Questions and answers have been edited for clarity).
Platinum Equity: There is an increased awareness of systemic racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. What challenges are presented to a company providing telcom services to prison populations, which disproportionately come from communities of color?
Dave Abel: It’s the reason that I came here. I’ve been primarily focused on the public sector, and I am really attracted to places that have significant change issues. When the opportunity to come here came along, I absolutely jumped at the chance. Platinum and I have seen eye to eye on this since the day that I walked in the door. We are part of an industry that has good as its core mission. Our primary purposes are to connect humans, incarcerated individuals with friends and family, which we believe – and studies show – have the greatest impact on the likelihood of having successful reintroduction to society.
Abel: We take all those missions extremely seriously. In January, we started a conversation, a set of intentions and a set of actions to change the course of the company, to make our products more accessible, and make them higher quality to provide more people the ability to be able to use them and to add on to those products everything that we can that will focus on the post-incarceration environment, and a more successful reintroduction to society.
PE: I’m going to back up a little bit. Why the public sector?
Abel: I grew up in southern Virginia, went to the University of Virginia, and came to Washington D.C. It’s the industry. You’re in L.A., you go in the entertainment industry. You’re in New York, you tend to go into banking and finance, you go into manufacturing in Michigan. In the late 80s, early 90s, it’s what you did, and it just stuck with me.
PE: Back to messaging. When I ask about the challenges with the current climate, when people are calling for changes, does it make telling the company’s story more difficult?
Abel: The message becomes more difficult if you’re talking to somebody who believes that you should remove investment from a problem. If you are a person that believes that bringing assets, bringing capital, bringing investment, bringing innovation, and bringing technology increases the likelihood of finding good solutions to our problems, then you’d be very interested in the message that we need to be able to send. And when I think about people who are advocating on behalf of incarcerated individuals and us, there is very little difference in what outcomes we are looking for.
PE: There are corporate responsibilities for good outcomes?
Abel: Absolutely. In my first day as CEO of the company, we sent a press release about the ways that we need to be able to change this business, the accountability that we take for making those changes in the business, and the responsibility we take for generating improved outcomes. In Platinum and in Aventiv, we are willing and getting out in front to take responsibility for what those changes need to be. We will not shy away from our commitment, nor from the measures of that commitment.
PE: You said earlier there’s very little difference between Securus and prison reform advocates when it comes to outcomes. Less people incarcerated; recidivism rates go down. Can producing good outcomes and making profits be compatible goals?
Abel: They must be compatible goals. The profit is there to be able to provide a return on investment that brings capital in to be able to improve the technologies that are necessary to be able to achieve the goals. But what it requires from us from a corporate standpoint is continued innovation and reinvention of the services that we’re providing. Is our profit is always going to be from making phone calls? Absolutely not. That’s why we invest in the development of tablets, software to go on tablets. We’re hard at work on exciting new technological advancements for training and education. We are hard at work on services focused on post-incarceration things, like job skills, identification acquisition, appointment scheduling.
PE: Diversification is a main strategy?
Abel: We see the value and the balance between our consumers and our customers. We’re not just about law enforcement. We’re not just about incarcerated individuals and their families. We are about the balance between the two, and the need to provide these tools in a safe and secure manner. You brought up the point about where we are as a society. We’re already deeply into discussion and strategy about how average daily population of incarcerated individuals in the United States is a metric that we have to move away from. That’s not how you want your business anchored in the 21st century.
PE: Why is that?
Abel: When I look at European models and I look at Latin American models from an incarceration standpoint, but Europe in particular, and the Nordic states in particular, the model is significantly more focused on being able to provide goods and services that focus on rehabilitation vs. punishment. Of the changes that I would like to see coming out of the debate we’re having; the debate is to focus on outcomes from our system that are different. We want to be bringing capital and technology to an often-overlooked community.
PE: Discuss the relationship with government.
Abel: It’s a local decision. We have a lot of models that we use to be able to work with our government customers. Some government customers require commissions to be able to provide a full suite of services. Some of them budget for those services. There’s certainly a lot of criticism in the market. It’s an easy target for people to be able to say that commissions are bad. It’s really just a matter of how the cost for the services are provided. We’ve made a very clear demarcation over the course of the last six months. We won’t weigh in on whether a commission model is good or bad, or what the responsibilities are of our government customer in using that commission. We will provide our services to any organization or entity that has a mechanism by which we can get appropriately paid for those services. We will respect the choice of local community in how those services should be provided and not engage in politics to sway that determination.
PE: That sounds like you’re washing your hands of the situation. Don’t you have more power in that process? It sounds like a cop-out.
Abel: That statement, and I stand behind that statement, is focused on how the government needs to be able to provide the resources for incarceration service.
Abel: Now, there’s a broader question to what you asked. Does Securus have a responsibility to be able to address the inherent inequality in our system of criminal justice? And we haven’t been public in our statements around that. We must be careful about how we do that. But the answer to that is absolutely. And the way we’re going to go about doing that is how we provide tools, capabilities, and opportunities for people to not have them incarcerated in the first place or to get them a better outcome when they are incarcerated.
Abel: And remember, we walked through the strategy of this business, the long-term strategy of this business is in providing post-incarceration services, in providing financial tools for people who can’t get them and creating financial literacy for people who will struggle to be able to use those tools, in lowering the cost of our products, creating greater access to our products. It would be our hope and our intention that the people who use our services while they are incarcerated, are never our consumers while incarcerated ever again.
PE: We talked earlier about the diversification, and you mentioned the things that you have in the works. I was drawn to a new tablet you discussed at a recent employee townhall before COVID-19 struck. Better products, lower costs?
Abel: There’s not a company around that couldn’t benefit from executing that strategy. (It is important) to introduce a new version of our tablet, increase the battery life, and improve the functionality of the software on that product.
Abel: When I first started to look at this, I made the mistake of thinking about our tablets like an iPad. And the difference is that we’ve got a product that is somewhere between $70 and $90, vs. an iPad that’s between $700 and $900. Our ability to be able to put this tablet in the hands of our consumers is highly dependent on our ability to make it the least expensive tablet that we possibly can. It means it’s really difficult to refresh that technology. What kind of phone do you use? Do you have an iPhone or an Android?
PE: I have both.
Abel: Let’s take the iPhone. It’s got a life expectancy to it. I bought a new phone five years ago, and it’s like two years beyond its possible life. I’m squeezing every moment of life that I can out of the phone and I finally had to go buy one, because this one just doesn’t work anymore, and the battery in particular. And that’s a device that has a $600 to $800 price tag associated with it. For us, the challenge of doing this and making sure we’re keeping the cost as low as possible is critically important. When we introduce the JP6S tablet (it was released in late July), the battery and the battery management in the software that goes around it, we expect that’s going to decrease the number of customer service issues that go into our contact center by almost 30 percent. The introduction of that tablet alone, if we are successful in eliminating the battery issue and some percentage of the software issues, you have a population that’s 30 percent more satisfied, and then you take the capacity of the contact center and focus it on all of the other issues that we struggle to be able to get to and you can immediately see the impact.
PE: How do you change perceptions?
Abel: We do it in a lot of different ways. The first way is we start internally. One person goes into a market, one person says something, one person is not aligned with the direction you’re going, and it’s like the whole company isn’t aligned. No. 1 was getting our company clear on our strategy, getting our company clear on our point of view, and increasingly getting our company clear on the culture that we want to be able to project in the market.
Abel: COVID has made that harder because it’s impossible for me to go to all of our locations and meet with our people in person, because most people are working remotely. No. 2 is broader and more open communications with our customers and our consumers. I’ve had the good fortune of going individually to almost a dozen customers before COVID restrictions and talking with them about our changes. Talking with them, I’ll get their advice and input on what is important to them in our products and services as we go forward, and what elements of our transformation are encouraged and discouraged from them. And I go into facilities. I encourage my leaders to go into facilities.
Abel: No. 3 is ongoing communications with our community. These are the consumers that we serve, and the people who use and pay for our products on a regular basis.
Abel: And then No. 4 is I regularly try to go out into the market and meet with our toughest critics. People who hate us can absolutely help us by continuing to communicate why they hate us and what they think we need to do better. We may disagree on the mode of implementation about how to be able to make the changes in this industry. We can learn from every single person and every single point of view to make ourselves better and better.