Prison Profiteers: extracting billions by exploiting prisoners and their families

America imprisons more people than any other nation in the history of the Earth, and those prisoners' only lifeline to the outside world is the prison phone-system, from which they must make collect-calls. Those calls are billed by Global Tel Link and companies like it, companies that offers kickbacks to the prisons that use its services, which bill prisoners' families more than a dollar a minute, hundreds of times more than free-market carriers. GTL is making over $500M by exploiting the vulnerable families of the most emiserated people in America, and its competitors are making hundreds of millions more. 2.7M American children have to ration their calls to their incarcerated parents, undermining the cohesion of prisoners' families and their ability to support prisoners on release.

This point is made in a long and sad article on prison profiteering by Liliana Segura in The Nation. Worse than phone profiteering is the cruelty of the prison medical contractors, who ration vital treatments to prisoners, leaving them in agony and worse. For example, Correctional Medical Services "discourages treatment for hepatitis," leaving prisoners with hep. C to slide into permanent, profound disability.

These problems are much worse in private prisons, who are guaranteed occupancy by the states and counties that contract with them -- effectively, the government promises to lock up a minimum number of its citizens as a condition of doing business with private prisons. These prisons are not subject to freedom of information requests, are not inspected in the same way as public prisons, and have profit-taking built into their billion-dollar business, meaning that every dollar they spend on care and rehabilitation for prisoners is a dollar they don't return to their shareholders.

The ACLU is campaigning against prison profiteers and they deserve your support.

I dealt with Global Tel* Link for only a few months. But for Tim’s relatives, this had been their reality for years. GTL makes more than $500 million a year exploiting families like his, who face the choice between paying exorbitant phone rates to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones—up to $1.13 per minute—or simply giving up on regular phone calls. Like many other telecommunications companies that enjoy profitable monopolies on prison and jail contracts across the country, GTL wins its contracts by offering a kickback—or “commission”—to the prison or jail systems it serves. As an exhaustive 2011 study in Prison Legal News explained, the kickback is “based on a percentage of the gross revenue generated by prisoners’ phone calls…. [The] commissions dwarf all other considerations and are a controlling factor when awarding prison phone contracts.”

The higher a kickback, in other words, the more likely a company is to win the contract. These high kickbacks translate into higher phone rates for family members—usually the very people who can least afford it. Like the vast majority of those who pass through the massive jail and court complex known as 201 Poplar in downtown Memphis, Tim’s family was not wealthy. When it came time for his trial last spring, his mother would be in court every day, only to leave straight for her night job, cleaning office buildings.

Global Tel* Link is one of five companies profiled in a new video series called “Prison Profiteers,” a collaboration between Beyond Bars—a Brave New Films project—the ACLU, and The Nation. With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, prisons are big business; the goal of the series is to expose the myriad ways people enrich themselves off crime and punishment. Defenders of for-profit prison services pitch them as superior, efficient, money-saving options for cash-strapped states and localities that can ill-afford the costs of mass incarceration. (And indeed, historically, state-run services have often proven abysmal in themselves.) But not only do such privatized services often end up more expensive in reality, they can incur huge unseen costs to inmates and their families.

With 2.3 Million People Incarcerated in the US, Prisons Are Big Business [Liliana Segura/The Nation]

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