Dept. of Corrections phone services provider to pay $67M in landmark settlement
Following six years of litigation in federal court, Global Tel*Link — the exclusive provider of prison telephone services for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) — has agreed to disburse $67 million to inmates and family members affected by its actions and thus finalize a legal action filed by a group of injured parties.
The settlement agreement, announced by Caplan Cobb LLP, Radford & Keebaugh, LLC, Andrew R. Lynch, P.C., and Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian, & Ho, could benefit inmates in Puerto Rico’s prisons and their families, attorneys said.
“We’re proud to have achieved a settlement that will provide full refunds to class members and establish important protections for GTL’s future customers,” said Caplan Cobb’s Michael Caplan and T. Brandon Waddell.
The lawsuit alleged that GTL, which is now called ViaPass Technologies according to its website, improperly retained prepaid deposits from its customers in its prepaid “AdvancePay” accounts after the account was inactive for 180 days or less.
GTL has denied wrongdoing of any kind as well as any liability.
The settlement, which was filed with the Atlanta federal court and remains subject to court approval hearing scheduled for Aug. 26, 2022, establishes a $67 million settlement fund, and requires GTL to substantially reform its inactivity policy.
Eligible account holders affected by the inactivity policy from April 3, 2011, to Oct. 6, 2021, may obtain a full refund from the settlement fund.
“It is important to know if the Secretary of the Department of Corrections is aware of this lawsuit and if Puerto Rico inmates have been victims of this scheme that has already produced a million-dollar transaction between GTL and the plaintiffs. We must know what measures the DCR is taking to ensure that any potential victim on the island can claim,” said Popular Democratic Party Rep. and House Government Commission Chairman Jesús Manuel Ortiz.
Ortiz added it is necessary to investigate the scope of these schemes in Puerto Rico and whether the Department of Correction has made efforts to ensure that “inmates and their families have not been victims of the company.”
He pledged that the Government Commission will “investigate what is the Correction’s plan to identify victims.”
In recent years, the company has previously faced and settled other lawsuits filed by inmates and their families in state and federal courts throughout the United States.
With this agreement, the company has now settled legal claims more than $100 million between 2017 and 2021.
In 2020, a federal judge in New Jersey approved a $25 million settlement requiring GTL to hand over $25 million in cash and phone credits to end claims it overcharged for inmate call services (Bobby James et al. v. Global Tel Link Corp.).
In 2017, a federal judge in California approved a $8.8 million settlement that required the company to pay $8.8 million to end allegations that the company, which operates payphones in prisons and jails, violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (Alice Lee et al. v. Global Tel*Link Corp.).
According to the Puerto Rico Office of the Comptroller contract registry, the original contract underwent two amendments that extended its validity, postponing its original termination date of June 30, 2017, until Aug. 31, 2018. The current contract was signed on Sept. 1, 2018, and although it expired in August 2021, its most recent termination date appears as February 2022.
Under the contract signed in August 2018 under former Secretary Erik Rolón, the company is to provide telephone and other related services to the DCR including the installation and operation of equipment of “the latest technology for inmates in the correctional facilities of Puerto Rico, as well as maintaining a system for the detailed record of calls made and received by inmates and the system of assistance for investigations within penal institutions, among other obligations.”
Fees and charges above those set by FCC
The rates billed by the company in Puerto Rico under the current contract with the DCR seem to exceed those established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for interstate prison calls as of May 2021.
The firm charged .25¢ per minute for collect, interstate calls, while the FCC had set the rate at between .12¢ and .14¢; and .21¢ per minute for prepaid/debit calls, vs. the FCC’s .12¢ to .14¢ rate.
For local calls, GTL charged .21¢ per minute for collect calls as well as prepaid calls — in both cases the FCC did not have set rates.
The company also charges additional transaction fees such as: $3 for use of automated payment by debit or credit card, $5.95 for each live operator use, charged to the inmate, and $5.95 fee per prepaid/debit phone call.