Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Global Tel Link (GTL) has been a forerunner in profiting from prisoners and their loved ones for years by charging astronomical telephone rates. Then in 2017, Securus Technologies piloted its JPay tablets in five California prisons. 

Its mere presence had an impact because people inside considered those prisons to be fortunate. Those locations became the transform of choice just for the tablets. 

In December 2019, I had arrived at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, and State Prison, Corcoran (CSATF/SP), which was one of the incubator prisons. I initially considered not getting the tablet because I had a gut feeling about it getting taken away. My cellmate had periodically allowed me to use his tablet to send and receive text messages, but when he was transferred, the convenience and ease of the tablet gnawed at my sensibility and I purchased one in mid-August 2020. 

However, it appears JPay’s strategy did not pan out. GTL outbid JPay for the contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). GTL, which had somehow wrangled the telephone contracts for all of CDCR, has now again seemingly won the tablet war as well. If this were Microsoft, Google, Facebook, this would garner more attention, but no one appears to care because we are prisoners.

We have been informed that GTL will give every prisoner in California a tablet with basic content and services plus access to streaming movies, music, podcasts and audiobooks for a monthly subscription fee.

I could choose not to accept GTL’s tablet, but keeping my JPay tablet after a certain point in time will be a rule infraction of some sort, so I really don’t have a choice in the matter. I know I will end up accepting the GTL tablet and use it to purchase content.

I am one of the fortunate prisoners. I have only invested about $700 to $800 for the purchase of the tablet as well as content and accessories such as music, keyboard, games and electronic stamps. I have financial support from family and friends and I “hustle.”

But there are prisoners who have worked for $11 a month (after paying restitution) and had sacrificed even the bare necessities to save up for the tablet and its content. There are prisoners, who have no family or money, were given a tablet during the course of the pilot program and have begged and borrowed for some content, who are now back to square one.

Over the last three years since the JPay tablets became available, inmates have put large sums of money into purchases. Songs cost $1.29 or $1.80, and I know one prisoner who purchased over 400 songs. There are about 50 games available, which cost an average of $5 each or $900 total.

So far, they have told us that restrictions on tablets we own will be removed and sent home and those who had loaned tablets will have their content downloaded onto a thumb drive that will be sent out. So technically, the content is ours but not being allowed to have it is the same as not having it.

When I arrived at CSATF/SP over a year ago, I was immediately placed on the Inmate Advisory Council’s JPay subcommittee because someone knew of my past prisoner advocacy efforts. From day one, I noticed that many of the content and services on the tablet such as movie rentals, e-book and newspaper purchases, submission of canteen and quarterly package orders, inmate grievances, healthcare services and electronic filings with the court were approved but were not being implemented. 

In hindsight the reasons for that are somewhat clearer. This transition was not a foregone conclusion, but a foregone certainty.

The initial reaction from the majority of prisoners on Facility-D here at CSATF/SP was concern about losing the content on their tablets, not just the purchased items, but emails and pictures of people who may have passed or people who are no longer in our lives not forgotten. For example, I have saved all of the letters from my mother over the last several years because she is now 84 years young. I want to still be able to hear and see her voice even after she may no longer bless this world with her physical presence. There are a plethora of concerns and questions, but there are very few formal answers.

Just like children, prisoners are resilient. They fall, bump their head, cry, rub their head for a moment, get up, brush themselves off, stop crying, and then go on about their journey. 

The majority of the prisoners have, for the most part, accepted what they feel is inevitable and are waiting for the transition to be complete, somewhat like a condemned prisoner’s last day before an execution (the feeling, not the reality!).

For private companies doing business with a public entity as large as CDCR with such a disenfranchised population, it is disingenuous for JPay and GTL not to officially inform its customers that such a large change is coming. It is wrong for JPay to continue selling its tablets, music, games, and electronic stamps, knowing that prisoners will not be able to retain the tablet. There has been no official mention from either company.

Having access to this technology is a game changer. There is no debate about all the benefits the tablets provide, even if all of a prisoner’s communication with the outside world can be more critically monitored and stored. 

Starting in May, there will also be a new method of making calls on GTL. We have to say our full name, then enter a series of numbers, all the while taking time away from our 15-minute allotted time. 

GTL has also revised its rates to 2.5 cents a minute, a reduction of 5.1 cents a minute for local and in-state calls and 18.5 cents for calls outside of California. It is providing indigent inmates with two free telephone calls and two video calls every two weeks, but I wonder what kind of chicanery of sorts is being slipped into place 

The attitudes of the prisoners are changing moment to moment, but one thing that has remained true since my arrival into CDCR in 1985 is that if CDCR giveth, CDCR taketh! 

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Artemus Blankenship

Artemus Blankenship is a contributing writer of African, French, Italian and Indian heritage. He is the youngest of three children and was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been incarcerated for more than four decades and is currently at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, and State Prison, Corcoran. He is a representative in the Inmate Advisory Council there.