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MN Prisons Pocketed $274K In Telecom Kickbacks Last Year

Plus MN Chamber of Commerce rallies the cranks, Metro Transit workers speak up, and 'Karate Kid' is from here in today's Flyover news roundup.

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Minnesota Correction Facility–Stillwater.

Welcome back to The Flyover, your daily digest of important, overlookedand/or interesting Minnesota news stories.

Wall St. Finds New Ways to Price-Gouge Inmates

It'd be ideal if Minnesota newsrooms (Viraluae included!) delivered major prison reform scoops that rightfully villainize the prison-industrial complex. In practice, however, it seems much of that reporting comes from national outlets like The Lever, whose new bombshell story, "Wall Street’s New Prison Scam," focuses on the telecom kickbacks received by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Journalist Katya Schwenk details how those companies, in cahoots with the state, once leeched millions from prisoners via per-minute phone charges, though in 2023 a bill pushed by Rep. Esther Agbaje (DFL-Minneapolis) created a law that made prison phones free for inmates.

In the meantime ViaPath Technologies, Minnesota's main prison telecommunications vender, discovered new ways to nickel 'n' dime prisoners through increasingly common digital tablets. Ownership of ViaPath has bounced between private equity giants (Goldman Sachs, Veritas Capital, American Securities), all of whom view the company's high-margin exploitation as a big plus, Schwenk reports. Prisoners pay up to $2 to play a single song on state-issued devices, and that figure is expected to increase, according to a watchdog agency. Telecom companies raked in nearly $3 million through non-phone services inside Minnesota prisons in '23, The Lever reports, while the state collected $274,365 in commission kickbacks related to songs, games, and money transfers.

We asked Schwenk to reflect on her terrific reporting. Here's what she had to say.

Activists fought hard in Minnesota, like in other places around the country, to guarantee free calls for the thousands of people in the state's prisons last year. When I started reporting this story, I was interested in how these new laws were changing prison communications, and the historically problematic relationships between prisons and prison telecom companies. What I found in Minnesota I think is emblematic of a dynamic playing out around the country—prisons and private equity firms are finding ways around reforms to continue to profit, at the expense of incarcerated people.

Biz Booster Club Hates Progressive Policies, Seemingly Enjoys Pork-Sponsored Salads

The minions of capital assembled yesterday for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s annual "Session Priorities" rally, which coincides with the gaveling of each new legislative session. Lobbyists, lawmakers, state officials, and business leaders all gathered inside the St. Paul RiverCentre to celebrate the historic progressive wins Democrats secured last session—just kidding!

The state's largest biz lobby made a point of whining endlessly about 'em, according to Michelle Griffith at Minnesota Reformer. Chamber CEO Doug Loon predictably prattled to the crowd of 1,700 that taxes, regulations, and "one-size-fits all” programs like paid family and medical leave put Minnesota businesses at "a competitive disadvantage." (Gov. Tim Walz, who issued the evening's opening remarks, defended the Ws his DFL trifecta stacked in '23.) Much more interesting was the "lightning round" Q&A to which KSTP's Tom Hauser subjected a quartet of lawmakers. Click here to see how they sounded off on issues like sports betting, strong beer in grocery stores, reforming the Met Council, and more.

We'll conclude our Chamber jamboree roundup with a funny and trivial tidbit flagged by reader Aarom Klemz: Koch bro-owned Flint Hills Resources may have secured the event's top sponsorship slot, but the Minnesota Pork Producers Association managed to wrangle… "SALAD SPONSOR" responsibilities. What a group.

Metro Transit Workers 'Don’t Feel Respected'

As the Metropolitan Council considers a hyperloop swindle, workers at its public transportation division, Metro Transit, have bigger, non-fantastical fish to fry: getting paid. That's the thrust of this Workday Magazine story, which catalogs grievances from some of the 2,500 bus drivers, rail operators, mechanics, and cleaners represented locally by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 1005.

The timing of the piece is a bit funny; the union reached a tentative contract agreement with the Met Council earlier this month (members will vote on it next week), and many of the interviews were conducted beforehand. Workers cited low pay, grueling schedules, and safety concerns as some of reasons that ridership is down from pre-pandemic levels, and they view investment into the rank 'n' file as a strategy to win back riders. Public transportation workers, they note, are directly "downstream" of systematic issues like poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental health. “I think that [we] don’t feel respected,” bus driver Matthew Harris says. "Everybody in our building is currently paid under what they’re paid in the industry,” rail mechanic Myles Alteri observes. “When you start driving, you realize that there’s something fundamentally at odds, and that is the schedule versus following these policies,” bus driver Abigael Ensor adds.

For much more on what life's like working in public transit, revisit our long conversation with Melanie Benson—Metro Transit's longest-serving bus driver.

Minnesotan Ben Wang Named New Karate Kid

Well, goddamn! Stribber Eder Campuzano deserves another tip o' the local angle cap. Yesterday he scooped news of Usher's Super Bowl Halftime Show roller skates being sourced from Red Wing, Minnesota, and today Campuzano seized on the most important element of the upcoming Karate Kid reboot: The titular martial artist youngster will be played by Northfield, Minnesota's Ben Wang. Wang emerged victorious for the role following a global search that garnered 10,000 submissions in the first 24 hours, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The locally launched actor starred as Jin Wang in the Disney+ series American Born Chinese, and he told the Strib's Neal Justin last year that the role felt ripped from his youth in southern Minnesota.

When Jin goes home, he feels like he's in a completely different world. And for me, it was like that on steroids. I wasn't the only Asian kid at Northfield High. If you walked the hallways all day, you'd probably catch one of the other ones. But I was probably the only one that wasn't adopted, so I had a Chinese culture at home. There were times I took pride in that and there were times I was made fun of for taking pride in that.

In the new Karate Kid, due out December 13, Wang will star alongside the 1984 original's lead, Ralph Macchio, plus Jackie Chan, Hilary Swank, and Jaden Smith. Jonathan Entwistle, director of Netflix's I’m Not Okay With This and The End of the Fucking World, will helm this fifth installment of the film franchise that inspired recent hit Netflix series Cobra Kai.

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