“Global Tel* Link. You have a collect call from: ‘Tim.’ An inmate in Shelby County Correctional Facility…. If you wish to accept and pay for this call, dial zero now.”
I don’t know how many times I heard the same robotic voice speak these words since last fall. I was researching the story of Timothy McKinney, a Memphis man facing his third death-penalty trial for the killing of an off-duty police officer in 1997. Tim would call from Shelby County Jail, to answer my questions and to do what anyone facing trial would want to do: air concerns about his case, vent. Sometimes he would call multiple times a week. Because the phone calls were limited to fifteen minutes at a time, a couple of times he hung up and called right back, so we could keep talking.
The calls were expensive, more than a dollar per minute, depending on the time of day. In order to accept one, I had to set up a prepaid account with Global Tel* Link, or GTL, “The Next Generation of Correctional Technology.” If Tim called and my account was out of money, the automated voice would prompt me to replenish it via credit card, while he waited on the other line. “By accepting an inmate call, you acknowledge and agree that your conversation may be monitored and recorded,” the company advises.
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.