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Prison Phone Giant GTL Cuts Prices in Miami-Dade Jails, But Only After County Taps COVID-19 Relief Funds to Replace Forfeited Kickbacks

by Ashleigh Dye

When prison telecom company Global Tel*Link (GTL) agreed to slash the price for calls that it charges detainees held by the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) in November 2021, it was only because advocates of the incarcerated convinced county officials to forfeit kickbacks the firm was contractually obligated to pay, effectively diverting money from federal COVID-19 relief funds to GTL in order make up the shortfall in the county budget.

Right at the federal cap on per-minute charges, GTL was charging fourteen cents for a minute of phone time to DCR detainees—$2.10 for a 15-minute call—providing a yearly revenue stream of $6.8 million. The county received 60% of that in a kickback euphemistically called a “site commission.”

After collaborating with prisoner advocacy group Beyond the Bars, though, the county agreed to forfeit those payments through the remainder of its current contract with GTL, which ends in July 2022, in order to reduce the per-minute call price to five cents for the approximately 4,000 people held in its three jail facilities.

“This is still way out of line with the trend towards ensuring free communication,” said Maya Ragsdale, the advocacy group’s executive director. “But it’s a start.”

In announcing the cost cut, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) said also that detainees would receive two, free, 15-minute phone calls a week, up from seven-minute calls before. To make up the shortfall in kickbacks from GTL, the county estimates it will need $2 million in relief funds from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in 2021.

GTL, headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia, and with revenues of $504.84 million, changed its name to ViaPath in January 2022, shortly after settling a class-action lawsuit that accused it of improperly retaining money deposited in prepaid accounts. The company will pay out up to $67 million in costs associated with that settlement. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.32.]

In another class-action suit the firm settled in 2020, a federal judge in New Jersey approved a $25 million fund to compensate prisoners who were charged up to 100 times the actual cost of a jail call. [See: PLN, Dec. 2020, p.24.]

GTL typically pays high commissions to correctional institutions which contract for its services. But many states and cities have lowered the cost of correctional facility calls. In Connecticut, San Diego, and San Francisco, calls, video chats, and emails are free for prisoners. Ameelio, a nonprofit organization, has partnered with Colorado to offer free video calls.

These reforms affect quality of life for prisoners and their families and reduce the economic burden of incarceration. As Ragsdale pointed out, jail and prison systems nationwide provided free phone calls until the 1990s, when governments began shifting their costs of incarceration to those who were caged and their families, and prison telecom companies entered the scene.

Levine Cava says the county is exploring options to provide free telephone calls to prisoners in its jails when the contract with GTL expires in July 2022. 

Source: Miami Herald

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