Photo by Emma Steinhobel on Unsplash.

On Aug. 10, 2021, Valley State Prison (VSP) in Chowchilla, California, became the first to provide free Global Tel Link (GTL) Wi-Fi tablets to its incarcerated population.

Earlier in February, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had said it entered into a contract with GTL to expand free tablet and kiosk access and reduce phone rates. “The enhanced communication project aims to strengthen the bonds between the incarcerated population with their families and communities,” according to its website.

It said that jails and prisons nationwide were seeing the benefit of providing electronic access to rehabilitative programs, departmental updates and leisure activities like games and books.

Seconds after the announcement broke, the prison grapevine began firing frantic fusillades of questions.

Some of the most common questions were about the tablet size compared to the models by Hiteker and Union Supply Media’s U-TAB devices that are sold by package vendors. The GTL devices were about two inches longer, an inch wider and three times as thick. As VSP denizen Greg Bisel put it, “They won’t give us hardcover books because they’re ‘dangerous,’ but they just gave us a 10-pound tablet.”

Valley State Prison’s residents didn’t have Wi-Fi-enabled JPay tablets, but in prisons that allowed them, individuals were expected to turn them in. According to GTL’s website, those who had purchased a tablet could have it unlocked and mailed to their family and friends.

Residents were glad to learn that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) would allow people to own both personal and GTL tablets and that they also wouldn’t have to give up their MP3 players.

Unsurprisingly, many of the questions revolved around how the tablet can operate as a phone. The phone app allows calls to be made from the tablets anytime from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the dayroom, in the cell, or — believe it or not — in the yard.

For years, residents had made fun of the TV depictions of mindless texters, faces glued to their phones as they nearly collided with everyone and everything around them. But the day the tablets were passed out in Chowchilla, it wasn’t 20 minutes before someone, who was walking and talking on their phone app, wandered blindly into a basketball game and almost got trampled like in the running of the bulls.

Near-mishaps notwithstanding, the freedom to be able to make calls regardless of the prison’s programming schedule is being reported as a huge boon to strengthen family ties and relationships. Perhaps best of all, GTL provides 75 free minutes every two weeks.

There are a few issues, though. The earbud-microphone combination is so cheap and ineffectual that the person on the other end often has to strain to hear you speak. Wi-Fi can be weak, particularly in the cells farthest from the centrally-located signal source in each building.

There are occasional periods when the phone app won’t open at all, or will open but not register buttons being pushed. Other times it will repeatedly kick you offline.

Finally, an interesting new etiquette has developed for talking on the phone in the cell: there isn’t any.

Many people are having a hard time distinguishing between when another cellmate is speaking to them and when they’re speaking to someone on the tablet phone. Others have been extremely annoyed by another cellmate talking loudly on their phone at 6:30 a.m. This is allowed under prison rules, but considered unacceptably rude by most incarcerated folks.

All things considered, however, after over 40 interviews, the general consensus is that the pros vastly outweigh the cons, and the phone function alone makes these devices a godsend.

For some people, the messaging app is the best thing about the tablets because it allows near-real-time texting (but not email) between the incarcerated individual and their loved ones, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Better still, messaging provides a way for people outside to contact those on the inside without having to wait for a phone call or for the prison mail system, which is so slow it seems like it’s being delivered by a glacier.

Messaging also includes the ability for people to send photos, e-cards and 30-second videos to their inside contacts. People inside can receive videos but not send them out.

One of the best parts of witnessing the GTL experiment has been watching some of the lifers, who’ve never in their lives received a video, watching with childlike wonder as their loved ones come to life on the screen.

The downside? There are a number of glitches and frustrating obstacles. To begin with, setting up the messaging app is a huge hassle due to bugs that GTL still needs to address. They haven’t provided any cohesive instructions for the set-up process either.

In simplest terms, the steps for those outside include:

  1. Go online to the App store or Google Play and download the GTL GettingOut Messenger app (the icon looks like a cartoon paper airplane).
  2. Click on the messaging icon, scroll down to the bottom of the app and deposit funds in the friends and family account. It costs five cents to send a text and another five cents per attachment. Messages are free to receive.
  3. Click the “Create Contacts” tab and select the state and prison, and type in the inside contact’s name and CDCR number (under Booking Number)

The inside contact will see a new name appear on their contacts list whether you send a message or not, but it’s safer to send one anyway. GTL has implemented a screening algorithm, ostensibly to preclude inappropriate messages. There are reports that some innocuous words have caused the whole message to be flagged, sending it to “pending” purgatory for days.

For example, the word “something” has been flagged because it contains the word “meth.”

But despite the glitches and digital red tape, this app is well worth the effort required to set it up.

Aside from the aforementioned phone and messaging apps, the tablets also provide access to educational resources, law and religious libraries, games and free apps.

More specifically:

  • Education: audiobooks, calculator, Calm (meditation sounds and graphics), GTL Learn (college textbooks), Merriam Webster
  • Law Library: LexisNexis (Title 15, the DOM, Primary Law, Secondary Sources, full-text bills and tracking, but no full cases, which is a real problem for serious work)
  • Religious Library: BibleGateway.com (any translation, audiobook-reader option), Quran, Sundar Gutka, miscellaneous wellness books
  • Games: 36 free games including Chess, Blackjack Vegas 21, Basketball, 9 Ball Pool, Casual Chess, Minesweeper, Motoracing, Stick Golf and Zombie Glider
  • Free: facility information, facility messages, health notices, help, notices, podcasts (a fan favorite), requests
  • Video calling: Although the tablets have the capacity to make video calls, for now at least, 15-minute video calls must be made from one of the kiosks in the dayroom or from the personal tablet connected to one of the docking stations, also in the dayroom (video calls are 20 cents per minute)

For a monthly subscription fee ranging from $1.99 to $7.99, GTL’s website states, “Users can stream movies and music,” as well as other media such as sports, internet radio, news and podcasts. While it should be pointed out that during the “rollout period” at VSP, all of the paid “Access Passes” (music, movies, news and sports) are free, there have been many questions about this.

  • Music Pass: two services available
    • Music Channels: pop/rock, classic rock, indie, news/sports
    • Stingray Music: Because this app can be customized to suit your individual music tastes, this is GTL’s most expensive offering at $7.99 per month. There are literally thousands of streaming channels, which can be searched by genre (e.g., Brazilian, Caribbean, country, electronic, hip-hop, Latin, pop, R&B/soul, rock, world); activity (Around the House, Driving, Exercise, Party!, Relaxation); or mood (chill, dramatic, energetic, festive, happy, nostalgic). When a channel tickles your fancy, you can click “Add to My Channels,” and it will store all your favorites and even suggest similar channels you might like. This is, of course, not new technology for those in the free world, but for many behind the walls, it’s so high-tech it seems downright miraculous.
  • Premium Movies (sports, drama, thriller, action, adventure, television, comedy, crime, fantasy): As you might expect from a service that only charges $1.99 a month, these movie titles are not exactly fresh from the theater, but the convenience of being able to have a menu of movies at your fingertips makes it $2 well spent. A few examples include “American Hustle”; “Barbershop” one, two and three; most of the Marvel films; all of the “Fast and Furious” movies; and season one of “Suits,” “House of Cards” and “Shades of Blue.”
  • News and Sports: A fairly wide selection including BBC News, NPR, Time, USA Today, CNBC, Forbes, The Economist, Fox News, Men’s Health, Popular Science, Politico and ESPN.

The following is a question that has been reverberating throughout VSP: What exactly is the “rollout period” and how long does it last?

No one will directly answer this question. In a recent letter posted on the GTL website, CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison wrote, “The rollout timeline and eligibility criteria are in development and will be updated regularly.”

At VSP, which began its third month of the rollout on Oct. 10, 2021, there is a vague collective awareness that no one inside the prison will be charged for any of the services during this period, but the specifics are a bit fuzzy. After reviewing the logs for 32 VSP users, it has become clear that virtually every grievance relating to phone reception, movie buffering delays, app connectivity, or signal strength gets the same boilerplate response from the GTL customer service representative (CSR):

“During the rollout phase, expect downtime, apps to crash or restart and sometimes even a reboot of the tablet. These errors and crashes allow GTL to see faults and work on fixing them. So that this system works better for everyone down the road. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”

In other words, the unspoken deal is that VSP residents get free premium services and GTL gets about 3,000 guinea pigs who will point out the problems and glitches so they can be fixed before the real paying customers get their tablets. All in all, not a terrible deal.

It is possible, though, that because everything is free, GTL is not assigning, shall we say, their best and brightest to field the requests to address grievances. One VSP user named Jay sent a grievance request that said, “My charger is broken.”

The CSR responded: This appears to be a hardware issue.

Thanks, Captain Obvious. What would we do without you?

Jones elaborated in a different request: “Tablet won’t hold charge, and it keeps turning itself off.”

The CSR replied, “If a consumer on the ‘outside,’ was not happy with the product, they would stop using the product. No one is making you use the tablet.”

In state prisons, when one person speaks to another in this manner, what follows often ends in pepper spray or rubber bullets. Thank God for the anonymity of faceless CSR correspondences.

But the truth is, no one interviewed, not even Jones who received this dubious “help” from the GTL representative, would want to go back to life before the tablets.

The movies and streaming music and news, messaging, and a portable phone that means you never have to miss calling someone on their birthday because of a lockdown — all of these have transformed lives of incarcerated citizens and loved ones in small but meaningful ways.

If the options are tablets with a side of snark or no tablets at all, they’ll take that rudeness with a smile.

 
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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Benjamin Frandsen

Benjamin Frandsen is a writer who is incarcerated in Chowchilla, California.