By Christopher Zoukis

There’s a storm brewing in the prison-industrial complex. It’s been simmering for decades, but a lawsuit was recently launched by inmates and families in Virginia against Global Tel*Link (GTL) sees it set to boil over, as inmates and their families have grown tired of paying the price for the wages of a corporate war.

The prison phone industry is relatively new—a product of the 80s and 90s—but it’s become big business since then, raking in billion dollar profits each year. Yet the industry itself is monopolized by a few key players (GTL and Securas), and their unchallenged supremacy has created social and economic hardships for the families of the incarcerated.

Global Tel*Link (see previous article here), one of the top two firms (alongside Securus), was recently sold to a securities firm for $1 billion. Each year these companies reap record profits, yet their market infighting sees them fit to wage wars against one another, forcing the families of the incarcerated to pay the price.

As we explained last year, after implementing a per-minute cap on interstate calls, the FCC stalled on its involvement in the industry. But that appears to have changed somewhat, most specifically with the growing interest of private securities firms in staking a market share in the industry. Because what’s been billed as “profit sharing” agreements (called “concession fees”) is starting to look a great deal more like a legalized form of kickbacks. Though it may be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to the FCC, the concession fee system represents just one in a long line of other creative ways that the industry looks to increase profits. A quick glance at Securus’ current rate schedule for Texas indicates just how deeply they’ve been gouging inmates and families:

  • $3.99 monthly fee if any of the authorized recipient numbers are for a cell phone.
  • $0.60 per-call payphone charge
  • $0.25 per-call charge utilizing their PIN technology.
  • $9.95 “convenience fee” to pay bills with credit or debit via the Securus phone system.
  • $7.95 “convenience fee” to pay bills with credit or debit via the Securus website.
  • $3.49 “Bill Statement Fee” in case you wanted to pay your bill by mail.
  • 5% “State Cost Recovery Fee” can be applied per intrastate call.
  • 4% “Location Validation Fee” per call surcharge for institutions not utilizing Securus’ location system.
  • $4.95 refund fee.
  • Inmate debit accounts expire 90 days after the last call, so anyone with restricted calling access will automatically lose all funds in the account unless the institution orders otherwise.

It’s a list that feels like it belongs in a Monty Python sketch; it would be funny if it wasn’t a system aimed directly at hurting those that can least afford it. Because by and large, the families of the incarcerated are amongst the poorest and most marginalized of society. So not only do we create economic hardship for those left behind, but allowing these firms to monopolize the industry and restrict inmate access to communication with the outside world, we perpetuate a system that runs counter to our social goals. Letting them run amok will see social ties severed, ties that are critical to reducing recidivism and releasing inmates into a community they have a vested interest in contributing to.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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