A Few Words on Jail in America, Part 3: Profiteering

If you want to see people beaten down by life, look no further than inmates in jail. If you want to see people looking just as beaten down without actually entering the jail, observe a group of people waiting in line to visit inmates. They are victims of an ingenious scheme to profit from people’s suffering. In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I've depicted general challenges of jail, and specific challenges of those who suffer from mental illness. In this installment, I'll discuss as examples two companies whose business models are to profit from the families and friends of inmates when they attempt to offer emotional support, and then I will explain why this is such a problem. I will show that jail is a powerful system for punishing the poor for being poor, and for keeping them that way.

If a person were to ask me, “What does an inmate want?”, I'd respond that if freedom were not an option, an inmate typically wants to be reconnected with loved ones. How does that happen? Depending on the jail, there might be staff who will relay messages for the inmate; there might even be staff, such as social workers, who are partially dedicated to assisting. As you'd imagine, most people would prefer to communicate with their loved ones directly rather than through a third party.

There are three primary means of communicating directly with inmates: visits, phone calls, and mail. All are difficult. Many jails use visitation through glass, as you've seen on TV; scenes abound in fiction of lovers pressing their hands to the glass that cruelly separates them. In real life, even that isn't always an option — some jails instead carry out visitation via closed-circuit TV.

Phone calls take place over a poor connection and are often exorbitantly expensive. One of the biggest purveyors of penal telecommunications is Global Tel*Link (GTL), a publicly traded corporation which provides phone services and more in many correctional facilities. While the rates charged can vary depending on the arrangements GTL has made with the relevant authority, the paying party can expect to pay a baseline surcharge of $2 or $3 per local call, plus approximately $0.20 per minute — and of course long distance is even more expensive. The money comes either out of an inmate’s funds, in the form of a phone card they would purchase inside the jail, or out of the called party’s funds, from monies they’ve associated with the phone number called. This is called an advance pay account.

There may be delays in inmates receiving mail, particularly if nobody’s explained to the sender whatever unique rules may exist for the mail to be accepted. For example, a facility may require pre-stamped envelopes for mail to inmates so that narcotics can’t be smuggled in under the stamp.

There’s another way of supporting inmates, and it’s one of the biggest requests made by inmates in my experience. They almost always want money put on their accounts. Different jails have different names for these accounts, such as “trust” or “commissary”, but the purpose is to permit inmates to purchase some of the many consumer goods marketed exclusively to inmates.

Snacks for inmates are one of the best examples. Entire brands of snack food exist that can only be found in a correctional facility. Here is one:

[Photo credit: Eric Gregory/Lincoln Journal Star]

The Moon Lodge brand is produced for a privately held company, the Keefe Group, which since 1975 has made a wide range of products exclusively for jails and prisons. It’s a subsidiary of a larger group whose other subsidiary makes hotel room appliances like coffeemakers.

You can learn all this from Google in five minutes, but because most people are not aware of these companies, they don't go looking.

These companies have their usefulness. They understand the unique risks of the correctional environment and provide products that are helpful for everyone’s safety, like flexible pens that can’t easily be used as weapons. GTL, per its own website, is offering not just communications but the ability for authorities to monitor those communications, which can be vital for security reasons, even if it may seem like a violation of privacy.

So what’s the problem?

  1. Inmates’ families tend not to have very much money; twenty dollars is often more than they can spare on a moment’s notice. These companies make their money by selling poor service at exorbitant rates to poor people who have no other choice.
  2. Even though some of these inmates are in fact guilty of a crime, it is unjust for the ripple effect to spread to yet more innocents. When even a dollar isn't easily spared, every cent going into overpriced telephone services could well be a child not getting what they need. It is unconscionable to force innocents to pay such a price so that these companies can make a profit.
  3. Since these companies’ business model is to profit from mass incarceration, they stand to be some of the biggest losers if and when our nation finally stops this disaster.

This last point is arguably the most disturbing. Naomi Murakawa, in her book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (recommended by Cornel West and not a conservative screed), tells us that one of the primary lobbying forces behind the Three Strikes law in California was the labor union representing California corrections officers. More prisons with more prisoners would mean more guards paying more union dues, which would mean a stronger union. Arizona’s xenophobic immigration law, SB 1070, was nurtured from an idea into a bill with the help of officials from the Corrections Corporations of America, the largest corporate prison and jail operator in the United States. As the newly powerful movement to end mass incarceration gathers steam, these stakeholders can be expected to fight back, and they'll be bankrolled not only by investors and union dues, but by incarcerated people and their families.

I do not advocate for the end of incarceration. There are criminals who are so dangerous that they must be locked away for everyone’s safety. I've worked with some of them. We are a long way away from becoming a nation that only incarcerates when truly necessary, but by attaching the profit motive to human captivity we poison the likelihood of our nation becoming truly great.