Bloodsucking Prison Telecom Is Scamming Inmates With 'Free' Tablets

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When you get free technology, you can reasonably assume that you’re getting screwed. That’s infinitely truer if you’re in prison.

As Reason first reported, the West Virginia Division of Corrections struck a deal in February with GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link), the rent-seeking prison telecommunications company that’s been gobbling up smaller providers and gouging inmates for, in one Oregon county, nearly $18 for a 15-minute phone call. Under the terms of the deal, GTL provides inmates with tablets for “free.”

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GTL’s West Virginia contract stipulates that the inmates would be able to use the tablets to text, stream music, play games, make video calls, and read books, among other things. The hardware is free, but doing anything on it costs a fortune. As outlined in the 2019 GTL contract, content access costs 5 cents/minute, video visitation costs 25 cents/minute, plus 25 cents per written message, 50 cents per photo attachment, and a dollar per video attachment. That could mean that texting one photo equates to up to 12.5 man-hours of labor, based on the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2017 estimate that West Virginia inmates make between 4 cents and 58 cents an hour. Alex Wright, of Level and the Inside Books Project, told Gizmodo that at least eight other states, including Colorado, Missouri, New York, South Dakota, Indiana, Delaware, Maine, and South Carolina, now offer “free” tablets.

Aside from the scandalous fees, a video visitation option seems great on its face, since it enables inmates to see friends and family inhibited by distance or disabilities (as the West Virginia Division of Corrections emphasized to Gizmodo). But not even that, as a concept, looks promising, as the Prison Policy Initiative found in 2015, many jails have used it to eliminate in-person visits altogether. (This is not the case with most prisons yet, nor in West Virginia.)

The West Virginia Division of Corrections collects a 5 percent commission on the charges, but a spokesperson clarified to Gizmodo that all proceeds go to a “benefit fund” for “open house visitation, recreational equipment, holiday dinners, and other opportunities that would not otherwise be available.” They further stated that they are still collecting book donations and that using the tablets are optional.

This still leaves the question of why the prison system couldn’t mastermind a plan to hook up Skype and scrounge up some funding for basic services without kowtowing to a villainous corporation that bleeds inmates dry. On its site, GTL advertises that it processed $800 million in credit card transactions in 2018 alone and controls communications of 1.8 million prisoners across all 50 states, amounting to over three-quarters of the U.S. prison population. Back in 2007, GTL and its subsidiary, TCG (formerly owned by AT&T), were pursued by the state of Florida for allegations of improperly dropping calls, which isn’t just shitty service; GTL charges an exorbitantly high premium (we found it charged more than $5 in one Oregon county) for the first minute of a phone call, and it was estimated that refunds would have cost up to $6 million. (The company eventually settled for $1.25 million, on the condition that there was no finding of guilt).

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The Federal Communications Commission for years attempted to reign in fees on inmates’ calls, voting in 2015 to cap them at 11 cents a minute. But in 2017, after some legal setbacks and under Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency reportedly dropped its efforts.

“It’s not surprising that Global Tel Link is the company behind this practice,” president of the Prison Book Program, Marlene Cook, told Gizmodo. “It is reprehensible to price-gouge a literally captive audience.”

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“States like West Virginia are in on the con, too,” Wright told us. “They get kickbacks from the for-profit companies that provide these free tablets with horrendously limited and expensive content. The State of Colorado Department of Corrections, for example, receives a flat payment of $800,000 a year from Global Tel Link for this short-sighted scam.”

As for the books, the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which published a report on the West Virginia contract, points out that many of the books are available through the online library Project Gutenberg, which does not include the kinds of books inmates typically request, including “how-to guides (carpentry, starting a business, repairing small engines, etc.), contemporary fiction, popular mysteries and sci-fi, African American literature, Native studies, [and] recent autobiographies.” Ashley Asmus from the Women’s Prison Book Project added to that list books on GED preparation, addiction recovery, and parenting from prison; she also noted to Gizmodo that “while we applaud the service that Project Gutenberg provides,” their library focuses on older literature, which necessarily means that authors of color are not properly represented.

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To recap, in addition to charging to use the “free” tablets, GTL gets to charge inmates for books it didn’t even pay for. “The content that Global Tel Link [GTL] and other similar prison profiteering companies are charging by-the-minute for is often free, Creative Commons or public domain material,” Wright told Gizmodo. “Their profit-seeking is devoid of morality, bad for prisoners, bad for taxpayers and shortsighted. Limiting education and literacy among prisoners - literally charging some of the poorest people among us by-the-minute to access free content - is a sure way to keep marginalized people right there in prison. Expanding access to education and literacy - and providing the content for free - has been shown to measurably improve incomes, decrease unemployment and reduce re-incarceration for inmates when they’re released.”

When reached by Gizmodo, Billy Wolfe of the ACLU West Virginia also called the practice of charging people for otherwise-free books “exploitative and unconscionable,” a quote I’m adding simply to up the volume in the cacophony of voices agreeing that this is terrible.

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Gizmodo has reached out to GTL about their soulless, parasitic scam and will update the post when we hear back.

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About the author

Whitney Kimball

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo