Prison Contractor That Charges Inmates Sky-High Phone Fees Proposes Virtual Reality Visitation

Prison Contractor That Charges Inmates Sky-High Phone Fees Proposes Virtual Reality Visitation
An exterior view of San Quentin State Prison in San Francisco, California, where Global Tel Link (GTL) is the sole provider of prison phone calls. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

Global Tel Link (GTL), the massive prison-contracting giant that supplies tech ranging from telecommunications systems to payment services for correctional facilities across the U.S., may have found another way to squeeze more change out of incarcerated persons making contact with the outside world.

As Vice first reported, Global Tel Link (GTL) recently filed a patent that describes a “system and method for personalised virtual reality experience in a controlled environment.” It continues, “A system and method for initiating a personalised virtual reality session via a virtual reality communication system in a controlled environment is disclosed.”

In effect, what this describes is a VR system by which incarcerated persons could interact with others outside the prison — VR visitation using digital avatars, basically. Other possible uses could be allowing inmates “for a brief time, imagine himself outside or away from the controlled environment.”

GTL obviously intends the ways in which this system can be used to be completely at the whims of prison officials, who typically surveil any venue of access to the outside. The patent describes a “monitoring system” that “continuously monitors visual information of the virtual reality session for any prohibited… actions performed by a user’s avatar that are determined by monitoring centre to be inappropriate for a virtual reality session.”

The patent is listed as filed in September 2019, so any such product could be a long way off from being installed in prisons.

Prisons have never been a nice place to find oneself, but in recent decades the for-profit correctional facilities and prison contractors that make up the U.S.’s sprawling prison-industrial complex have eagerly cashed on what is literally a captive market. For example, GTL controlled roughly 46%-53% of U.S. prison telecommunications contracts as of 2017. Both it and its primary competitor Securus have been accused of using their dominance to engage in price gouging.

The Federal Communications Commission intervened in May 2021 to hinder the practice of contractors shaking down inmates for phone calls, limiting out-of-state and international calls to $US0.12 ($0) per minute for prisons and $US0.14 ($0) for jails. That didn’t limit calls placed within a state, which remain horrifically overpriced.

Research by the Prison Policy Initiative has found contractors charged extortionate rates for calls across the country, with the worst example being Arkansas, which charged up to $US25 ($34) for a 15-minute call from county- or city-run jails or $US4.80 ($7) from a state prison in 2018. In one Oregon county, GTL charged nearly $US18 ($24) for a 15-minute call. The Prison Policy Initiative says most of the fees are paid by families and are inflated by “kickbacks” contractors pay back to government institutions like correctional systems.

GTL has claimed to want to reduce prison phone charges and attributes the high costs to things like security and providing corrections-grade equipment. But the Orlando Sentinel reported this year that families of Florida inmates were furious at a new GTL contract with the state’s Department of Corrections that added a 99 cent ($1.34) flat-rate fee to all prepaid deposits and only reduced per-minute rates by half a cent, to 13.5 cents ($0.07). The contract also eliminated cheaper options for calls placed locally.

In 2019, GTL was reported to be handing out tablets to inmates in West Virginia that it advertised as “free.” The hardware was free, but rates charged to inmates for using the tablets were jaw-dropping. Accessing content cost 5 cents ($0.07) a minute, video visitation cost 25 cents ($0.34) a minute plus 25 cents ($0.34) per written message, photo attachments cost 50 cents ($0.68), and video attachments cost a dollar. As the Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2017 that West Virginia inmates made between 4 and 58 cents ($0.79) an hour, sending one photo could suck up 12.5 hours of labour.

As Motherboard observed, VR has been used in prisons before for purposes like skills training and preparing inmates scheduled for release for their potentially disorienting return to modern life after long stretches behind bars. But it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which VR visitation becomes just another excuse to suck every last dime out of incarcerated people and their families and loved ones — especially because private prisons and their contractors have every incentive to replace free, in-person visitation with remote-calling tech that they can charge astronomical rates for. As the Guardian reported in 2017, it has become extremely common for U.S. prisons to do so, citing Prison Policy Initiative data that showed 74% of U.S. prisons that implemented remote visitation programs either reduced or eliminated in-person visits.

This is far from the only proposed use of VR in the correctional system that somehow manages to sound more dystopian than the present-day facilities that hold in the neighbourhood of 2.3 million people across the U.S. on any given day.

A 2020 study by the Indiana School of Law and Social Equality proposed using VR headsets to “provide a virtual environment in which the criminal is punished for the crime he or she commits,” with one example being subjecting an inmate with arachnophobia to a punishment where each day more spiders were added to a “virtual environment that completely mimicked his real-world jail cell.” (The study did note that “There is, of course, no precedent for this” and such punishments could run up against the Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment but it advocated at least discussing it.)

Others have argued for virtual prisons, in which the use of physical institutions would be limited and replaced by technology like location tracking and mandatory solitude in VR headsets.