Policy

A prison telco seized millions of customer funds. The FCC won’t let it happen again.

After Global Tel Link seized $121 million in customer funds, the FCC is taking action.

A bank of telephones for use by detained people is seen inside the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Virginia, on August 13, 2018. - A former regional jail, the facility has been contracted by the US Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house undocumented adult immigrant detainees for violations of immigration laws (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

“GTL has been unjustly enriched by its practice of converting to revenue any funds remaining in an account that GTL deems inactive,” the complaint read.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

One of the largest prison technology providers in the country seized $121 million from users’ prepaid accounts, after deeming those accounts inactive. Now, not only is the company — Global Tel Link, or GTL — paying out $67 million in refunds and credits, but the Federal Communications Commission is proposing new and expansive guidelines to ensure it does not happen again.

The details about GTL’s actions came to light as part of a class-action lawsuit brought by attorney Benson Githieya in Georgia. According to that suit, Githieya set up an account with GTL’s AdvancePay service and loaded it with funds so his cousin in a South Carolina prison would be able to call him. But after 90 days of inactivity, Githieya said GTL repossessed all the money left in his account. This policy played out across so many customers, that according to court filings, GTL brought in an average of more than $1 million a month from seized accounts over the course of eight years.

“GTL has been unjustly enriched by its practice of converting to revenue any funds remaining in an account that GTL deems inactive,” the complaint read.

GTL did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment about the complaint and the settlement.

While Githieya’s claims have been public since April 2015 when he filed suit, the total sum of the fortune GTL seized was only recently released, spurring prison reform advocates to call the FCC into action. The court documents show that in October 2018 alone, GTL took $1.8 million in revenue simply by seizing customers’ unspent funds. The practice allegedly did not stop even after the suit was filed. Even now, the full extent of GTL's seizures are unknown, as the court has allowed revenue since September 2019 to be redacted.

“Now that we have a number, we understand just how large this problem is and just how much money the companies are making off of this,” Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, told Protocol. “I do think that it is past time that the FCC took an interest in this particular kind of consumer abuse around inactive accounts.”

Now, it seems the FCC is answering the call. Under the new rules, the FCC would prohibit GTL and other providers from deeming an account inactive for at least 180 days and require all unspent funds to be refunded to customers. “We expect our other reforms aimed at reducing certain charges and curtailing abusive practices to benefit all incarcerated people by easing the financial burdens that such charges and practices place on the incarcerated and those they call,” the FCC’s draft proposal said.

For years, criminal justice reform advocates have highlighted issues with prison telecom providers — from the lack of competition to the astronomical rates and subpar delivery of services. “There is one standard of consumer protection for most people in this country and then a couple million people have a whole different set of standards applied to them, a much looser set of standards,” Bertram said.

Until recently, prison calls could cost as much as $14 a minute, 31 times the amount it would cost to call a phone number in Antarctica. As one of the largest for-profit providers of communication services in prisons around the United States, GTL has found itself at the center of lots of these pricing fights. According to its website, the Virginia-based company provides services for “2,300 facilities and 1.8 million inmates in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.” It also serves facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The FCC has previously taken some action to clamp down on predatory policies by the prison telecom industry. In 2013, it issued an order that capped the price of interstate calls from prison at 21 cents per minute. In 2015, it further cut rates ensuring that most 15-minute interstate and intrastate prison calls would cost $1.65 altogether.

The FCC also plans to mandate prison telecom companies to provide video call services for incarcerated people with communication disabilities and whose primary language is American Sign Language. The new rules will be voted on by the commission on Sept. 29, 2022, a spokesperson at the FCC told Protocol.

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