‘Wireless Prisons’ Exploit Inmates With High User Fees, Claims Study

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Prisons should be wary of private communications firms that “exploit” incarcerated individuals by charging high fees for the use of their services, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) warned in a report today.

In a study of a contract awarded by the Colorado Department of Corrections to GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) to provide computer tablets to inmates of the state’s prisons, PPI charged prisoners would be forced to pay “exploitive pay-to-play” and subscription-based fees far higher than they would pay outside.

For example, inmates would have to pay 49 cents per electronic message or $19.99 a month for a music subscription. The contract gives GTL the power to raise prices when it suits the company’s interests, or “to back out of the contract if it doesn’t make as much money as it hopes to,” wrote Stephen Raher in the report, entitled, “The Wireless Prison: How Colorado’s tablet computer program misses opportunities and monetizes the poor.”

“What makes the Colorado/GTL contract especially frustrating is that it could have been an innovative step toward providing incarcerated people with useful technology,” Raher wrote. “Experts who have studied government technology contracting warn that projects often fail because details are not sufficiently thought through.

“The Colorado DOC seems to have walked down this familiar path by focusing largely on its own financial interest without giving much thought to the user experience or the financial impact on incarcerated people and their families.”

Raher said his study should serve as a “cautionary tale” to other state corrections systems who are using or contemplating similar programs.

He noted that Pennsylvania now has a similar system, where inmates are charged $147 for the tablet. South Dakota has selected GTL to roll out tablets later this year; Indiana has accepted bids for a tablet system in its prison system, and hopes to award a contract later this year; and the Alabama prison system may be soliciting bids late. In addition, several larger jails also offer tablets.

“One of the most common complaints about life in prison is the overwhelming boredom,” Raher wrote. “Thus, selling entertainment to incarcerated people is somewhat like selling food to hungry airplane passengers: there’s one source, and the provider can charge what it wants, regardless of quality.”

The full PPI report is available here.

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