California prisoners are receiving free Global Tel Link (GTL) Connect Network tablets designed to help them communicate with the outside world.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has partnered with the Department of Technology to contract with GTL to enhance incarcerated communication.
“The enhanced communication project aims to strengthen the bonds between the incarcerated population with their families and communities,” wrote a CDCR spokesperson.
According to CDCR, “Tablets will be provided at no cost to families or incarcerated people, although certain premium features, such as streaming music services, may incur charges.”
GTL Tablet features can include messages and e-cards, e-books, audiobooks and podcasts, news and sports, video-calling, and a free 15-minute video call every two weeks. Other features include phone calls, including one free 15-minute phone call every two weeks, music, movies and games.
The tablets are also being considered for use as a method for filing institutional grievances, buying commissary items, accessing a law library, self-help courses, and even for going to college online.
“I can’t wait,” said resident Mark Jarosik. “Having another point of contact with our family will actually help us emotionally. Our stress levels will go down. The sooner the tablets get here, the better.”
GTL says that its tablets will reduce recidivism, reduce stress, create responsible people, improve prisoner behavior, security and control, and increase operational efficiency.
“I think the free tablets will be beneficial because some people cannot afford them,” said Maurice Reed. “I also think it’s good because some people’s families are too far away to visit. The tablets can keep people out of trouble. ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”’
“I do worry about people breaking into them and messing it up for everybody. I worry about increased security searches because of the tablets, which are always an inconvenience,” said Reed.
The tablets will be clear see-through technology to make it easier for officers to inspect them for contraband. Family and friends will have to deposit money into a Getting Out account. They can download the Getting Out mobile app.
Some of these services can be accessed starting at $0.75 a month.
Donald Thompson has been incarcerated for 26 years. He sees the new GTL tablet as an opportunity for older incarcerated people to learn how to use modern technology.
“I was locked up when they were called mobile phones and they were the size of a brick,” Thompson said.
“My concern is whether or not CDCR is going to only allow us to communicate with approved visitors. I have family and friends who aren’t allowed physical access into the prison, but I should be allowed to talk to them with the tablet,” said Thompson.
In April the CDCR started providing the free GTL tablets to incarcerated people at Valley State Prison (VSP).
Daniel Henson wrote a letter to SQNews to tell us his tablet was not working properly. Henson said that his family and friends have been having trouble signing up to send messages on the Getting Out website app.
“Some of the issues that have been popping up during the roll-out phase include dropped video calls, choppy phone connections, movies freeze for several seconds, slow connections, the apps shutting down or not responding,” Henson wrote.
Henson said that incarcerated people’s keyboards have been vanishing. Prisoners who have gone into change their settings to alter the color of the keyboards or turn off sound lost their keyboards.
“My keyboard vanished,” Henson wrote. GTL is supposed to forward him a new tablet.
The Prison Policy Initiative did a study in 2019 and concluded: “These free tablets aren’t like the iPads you can buy in the store. They’re cheaply made, with no internet access.”
Regardless of any defects these devices might have, incarcerated people say the tablets are needed.
“SQ is overcrowded,” said resident Rahsaan Thomas. “There are not enough phone lines to sign up to use the prison pay phones. There are not enough slots on visiting day for visitors to visit. There are 40 slots for a population of over 2,000 people.”
Thomas said that the tablets would help reduce the housing-unit phone lines and open up more space for visiting.
But some incarcerated people are skeptical of the new tablets.
“I think there is a hidden agenda behind them,” said Jesse Blue. “I think they want to eliminate contact visits. They want to alleviate the hassles. It’s convenient to do FaceTime, especially during lockdowns.”
GTL is the phone service provider for all CDCR prisons. GTL is also providing service for video messaging and emails. In addition, the company provides the software for CDCR in-person visiting and video-visiting appointments.
Kiosks are being set up at prisons throughout the state to increase GTL services.
GTL has also partnered with Sesame Street to provide programming material for incarcerated people’s children.
According to Prison Legal News (PLN), GTL has had to pay out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over the years for alleged violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA).
In October 2020 a New Jersey judge approved a $25 million settlement agreement between GTL and New Jersey prisoners who paid up to 100 times the actual phone rate between 2006 and 2016, according to PLN.
The company has also been sued for charging unlawfully inflated prices for collect calls made by incarcerated people throughout the U.S.
In Washington, D.C. a lawsuit alleged that GTL and others engaged in unlawful schemes to maximize their profits at the expense of powerless individuals.
“At the end of the day, I still want the free tablet,” Thomas explained. “We have to have access to new technology to prepare us for re-entry and to prepare us for the next pandemic shutdown. Incarcerated people just have to continue filing lawsuits until GTL treats us right.”