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Tablets and E-messaging Services Expand in Prisons and Jails, as do Fees

by Matt Clarke and Ed Lyon

Global Tel*Link (GTL), one of the largest prison and jail phone service providers in the United States, has steadily expanded into other services that target corrections agencies. The telecom firm is now competing with Securus Technologies for a share of a lucrative and unregulated market: Providing tablet computers and e-messaging services to prisoners.

GTL supplies a custom tablet which it offers to prisoners at no cost. The company then recoups its investment and turns a profit by charging user fees for apps and services available through the devices.

Under a recent contract awarded to GTL by the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), prisoners pay $0.49 for each electronic message. The company also charges a monthly fee to access its streaming music service and video games in tiered subscriptions, priced from $5 to $15 per month.

Offering about 3 million songs, GTL’s music service costs twice as much as Spotify or iTunes for less than one-tenth the number of available songs. And with video games usually available outside prison for no more than $8 each, two months of GTL’s gaming fees could pay for all eight of the most popular games available from the Google app store.

The CDOC tablet contract also allows GTL to provide prison phone services, which cost $0.12 per minute. The tablets let prisoners make calls in a more private setting than a dayroom, but the contract permits GTL to unilaterally change what it charges for the calls, or other services, at any time.

Although the CDOC requires GTL to provide enough tablets for all state prisoners, the company’s responsibility for repairing or replacing faulty devices is limited. GTL is not required to fix or replace any tablet that it determines was “damaged or destroyed by a willful act,” and it has no onsite staff to make repairs. Replacement or repair of defective tablets is further limited to once per prisoner and 5% of all the tablets provided to the CDOC in any given year.

For electronic messaging, a prisoner uses his tablet to compose a message. Then he connects to a kiosk to upload it to his account with the prison’s messaging service provider. The message first goes to prison officials for review. If approved, the cost is deducted from the prisoner’s account and a notice is then sent to the intended recipient, alerting them that the message is available to be read on the provider’s website. If the recipient has also created an account with the provider, he can read the message, compose a reply and start the process all over again. E-messages, like phone calls, are recorded and stored.

“Calling the electronic messaging offered to incarcerated people and their families ‘email’ would be an insult to email,” said Stephen Raher, a pro bono legal analyst for the Prison Policy Initiative.

“These tablets are an embedded network where there is no risk of victimization with the use of Wi-Fi, but it has a lot of capability to keep people connected with technology,” countered Scott Semple, Commissioner of the Connecticut DOC, which expects to implement a similar program in the near future.

The Pennsylvania DOC charges prisoners $147 plus tax for a GTL tablet, while Indiana has already accepted bids from companies to provide tablets. Tablets are also provided to state prisoners in Georgia and, according to a June 2017 news report, Alabama prison officials plan to accept bids, too (previously, a pilot program at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama provided tablets to prisoners through an “e-learning center” at that facility).

As reported in PLN, numerous local jails have also contracted to provide tablets and e-messaging services to prisoners. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.35].

“There’s a lot of idle time in here,” said Lt. Mike Mattson with the Minnehaha County Jail in South Dakota. “If we can fill that idle time with positive things ... that’s a lot better for us.”

Prisoners at the Minnehaha County jail can rent tablets, provided through CBM Managed Services, for $5.00 a day. While the devices do not connect to Facebook or Twitter, they allow access to six websites: Fox News, CNN, NASA, the White House, the Smithsonian and a Christian site.

Recently, New York’s prison system announced that all 51,000 state prisoners will receive free tablets provided by JPay, owned by Securus Technologies – which will then charge for content on the devices, such as email and music.

A prison spokesmen said the tablets – and the educational and entertainment programs on them – will provide an incentive for prisoners to exhibit good behavior, thus making the prison system safer. Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Services (DCCS), called the tablet contract a “groundbreaking move.”

However, state Assemblyman D. Billy Jones said he was “vehemently opposed” to the JPay tablet program. Jones, a former prison guard, characterized them as a “luxury” that some schoolchildren cannot afford. Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb agreed and attacked Governor Andrew Cuomo over the program, linking it to an “offensive pro-criminal mentality” on the part of Cuomo’s administration.

GTL pays commission kickbacks to the Colorado DOC – and to the other prison systems with which the company contracts – for its phone and other services. Securus typically operates on a similar commission basis, though New York’s prison system will not receive any share of the revenue that JPay generates through its tablets.

In May 2017, GTL began rolling out its services to prisoners in South Dakota, who each received a tablet that connects to a closed network for phone calls, text messages, academic programs, music and games. South Dakota DOC Secretary Danny Kaemingk said the educational opportunities afforded by the devices would cover their cost.

“The more education someone receives, the lower recidivism will be,” he said, adding that re-offense rates also drop when prisoners are able to maintain close family ties through phone calls and electronic messaging.

Additionally, South Dakota prisoners can use the tablets to access prison policies, legal forms and account information. The costs for services offered through the devices include $4 a month for ebooks, $6 per month for games and $20 a month for a music subscription.

In New York, JPay’s tablets are provided to prisoners for free but almost everything on them is not. Prisoners pay $0.35 for a virtual “stamp” to send an e-message containing no more than 5,000 characters – including punctuation. An attachment, like a picture, costs another stamp. A picture with a greeting card costs two stamps, while a 30-second “video-gram” requires four. Buying stamps in bundles of 60 lowers the cost to $0.25 each.

With songs, games, movies and e-books all for sale on JPay’s tablets, the company projected $8.8 million in revenue within five years from its DCCS contract alone – an amount greater than its entire annual electronic messaging service revenue as recently as 2014, one year before the firm was acquired by Securus Technologies.

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set a cap on interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone rates of $0.21 per minute for debit and prepaid calls, and $0.25 per minute for collect calls. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1]. However, other services that are Internet-based, like those provided by JPay and GTL, are not similarly regulated – yet. Some critics have already questioned the fees charged for e-messaging and video visits.

“The promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams,” Raher noted.

Those revenue streams flow into government coffers too, thanks to “commissions” paid to corrections officials by firms like Securus and GTL. Such commission kickbacks typically range from 30 to over 90 percent – an amount the Louisiana Public Service Commission once called “worse than a payday loan scheme.”

Though prisoners pay for access to most tablet content, some is free. South Dakota’s DOC has made the searchable LexisNexis library available to prisoners at no cost. The state paid $54,720 for that service for the first year – but that’s far less than the $276,000 the DOC was paying a paralegal and attorneys to assist prisoners through a legal aid program.

A 1999 settlement in a lawsuit filed after then-Governor Bill Janklow removed prisoners’ access to legal materials in law libraries requires prison officials to provide access to the courts, which DOC Secretary Kaemingk maintains the tablets provide.

Defense attorneys, however, said the devices cannot replace lost access to legal advice. A single missed deadline can doom a case, for example. Jailhouse lawyers “might get 85 percent of it right, but the 15 percent they get wrong makes the difference,” noted Jason Adams, a Sioux Falls attorney.

“Giving you access to [LexisNexis] doesn’t teach you how to do legal research,” he added, pointing out one of the shortcomings of simply giving tablets to prisoners and expecting the devices to meet all of their needs – including the need to access legal materials.



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