Memphis commissioner questions jail “virtual visit” charges

    Shelby County Sherriff's Department badge. (Photo: SCSD Facebook)
    Shelby County Sherriff's Department badge. (Photo: SCSD Facebook)

    Shelby County’s contract with a prison telecom company was supposed to allow jail inmates to have contact with loved ones, but instead those loved ones are being used for profit, said Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

    The Shelby County Board of Commissioners will vote Monday on amending the county’s current contract with Global Tel Link (GTL), which had been hired to provide remote communications for inmates while visitations remained restricted during the pandemic. 

    In-person visitations to Shelby County Sheriff Office’s (SCSO) three detention facilities⸺men, women and children⸺were suspended throughout the pandemic, and although inmates were given a chance to remain in contact with loved ones, families are being charged for the service. Inmates are provided a tablet but families must have their own devices to access GTL’s services. Virtual visits must be scheduled three days in advance, and there’s a flat rate of $2.50 for 10 minutes and $6.25 for 25 minutes. No refunds will be provided if the visit is cut short. 

    Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer (Photo: Shelby County Government)
    Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer (Photo: Shelby County Government)

    GTL also provides inmates with the opportunity to use their streaming services, at a cost. According to Sawyer, inmates are being charged higher than average prices for restricted access to certain services, such as music and television. For instance, said Sawyer, if she’s paying $15 for Spotify’s audio streaming service, inmates are being charged $25 a month for a limited version of those services. 

    The costs are falling on loved ones who typically come from low-income backgrounds.

    Shelby County jails are 85% Black and most of their 2,000 inmates are men, meaning that women of color are shouldering the cost, and because of the pandemic, these women “are more than likely experiencing financial hardships,” said Sawyer.  

    “[GTL is]saying they’re supporting families to connect to their loved ones in jail, when in reality they’re taking advantage of the situation,” she added. According to the contract with GTL, Shelby County is receiving a share of the profits, about a million dollars in profit for remote visitations, and an additional 10% in revenue from streaming services. 

    According to studies, maintaining connections with loved ones is critical for reducing  the chance that inmates return to crime after being released. With jails being closed for an entire year and families having only virtual visits as an option, Sawyer likened the fees to extortion.

    “This is what GTL does…they profit off of inmates,” she said.

    Details are still being worked out, but Sawyer is looking into removing the charges all together, which would mean removing remote access for inmates because otherwise someone would have to shoulder the costs. 

    SCSO announced in March that it would reopen public visitation for inmates and this will remain a service at no cost to families.