Betts-Twilo-Prison-Telecom-051721.jpg

Silicon Valley Firm Powers Predatory Prison Video Calls

In October 2020, amid pressure from criminal and racial justice advocacy groups, billionaire private equity owner of the prison telecommunications company Securus Tom Gores resigned from the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The activist groups that forced Gores’s resignation, Worth Rises and Color of Change, wrote that the museum’s board should remove Gores because his company “makes over $700 million annually by price-gouging families—that are disproportionately Black and low-income—as they struggle to stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones.”

Securus’s main competitor in the space, Global Tel Link (GTL), the largest prison telecom vendor, faces the same charges of price-gouging. GTL’s technology is powered by Twilio, the explicitly anti-racist software giant, which could face the same scrutiny as Gores for the distance between its ideals and its actions.

Twilio has stood out among Silicon Valley companies as progressive on criminal and racial justice issues. Its CEO Jeff Lawson called the Trump administration’s family separation policy a “war crime.” Shortly after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, Lawson wrote, “We know systemic racism persists, and we will do everything to root it out [at Twilio] and elsewhere.” Lawson held an internal summit discussing criminal justice reform with former Attorney General Eric Holder.

In the aftermath of a mass resignation from the tech company Basecamp after it instituted a “no politics at work” rule, Twilio employees expressed their appreciation for Twilio’s openly political culture and urged the exiles to join them.

But many other tech firms with less overt ideological expression have gotten in trouble with their employees over working on projects antithetical to their values, from Google’s Project Maven contract on military drones to Amazon’s sharing of artificial-intelligence technology with police departments. For Twilio, Global Tel Link could create similar tensions.

Global Tel Link, which serves approximately 1.8 million incarcerated people, is the largest company in the $1.2 billion-a-year prison telecom sector. For decades, activists have argued that the high price of prison telecommunications—video calls can cost as much as 70 cents per minute and frequently don’t work well—prevents incarcerated people from staying in touch with their families. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the sector as a whole “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”

That market failure has acute consequences for incarcerated people and their families, for whom communication is vital for relationships and morale. GTL has been complicit in the practice of encouraging local jails in particular to deny in-person visits to incarcerated people, while promoting its pay-per-minute video calls as a substitute. This practice preys upon typically poor families who need to stay in contact with their loved ones. One in three families with an incarcerated member have gone into debt paying for calls and visits, according to a survey from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design.

GTL’s business practices have faced legal scrutiny. It has paid out $25 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging “unnecessary and unconscionable” rates for telecom services in New Jersey. In Mississippi, it paid $2.5 million to settle a suit alleging it paid “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to bribe the commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

GTL uses Twilio’s programmable video service to power video calls with incarcerated people on its GettingOut app. Twilio programmable video allows companies to create their own versions of video chat apps, like Zoom or Facetime. Twilio charges programmable video customers per minute of video call powered by the service.

Twilio’s service is core to GTL’s video call product, with experience with “Twilio Programmable Video” listed as a preferred qualification in a GTL engineering job post.

By inspecting network logs and source code, The American Prospect verified that GTL’s web-based video calling solutions rely on Twilio software and communicate with Twilio video servers during video calls.

In some cases, GTL charges as much as $8 for 20-minute video visits, representing a 50-fold markup of what Twilio charges.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit dedicated to dismantling the prison industry, has run successful pressure campaigns to convince investors to stop quietly supporting the prison telecom sector.

Asked how Twilio should think about its business relationship with GTL, Tylek said: “By doing business with GTL, Twilio has essentially endorsed its predatory practices. It’s not just the high cost of video calls, but also things like lobbying to end in-person visits—preventing parents from hugging their children—invasive recording of jail phone calls, and automated behavioral analysis on video calls. GTL is an arm of law enforcement—does Twilio want to be too?”

Uzoma Orchingwa, co-founder of Ameelio, a nonprofit that provides free communications to incarcerated people, said of the relationship between GTL and Twilio: “Socially responsible companies would not allow their services to be resold at predatory rates to low-income Americans.”

Twilio declined to comment for this article.

In addition to predatory pricing, users of GTL’s video calling app report technical issues and invasive monitoring.

On GettingOut’s Facebook page, users complain about persistent, nationwide system outages. These outages drive additional revenue for GTL.

Nikki Moulesong of Hammond, Indiana, who pays $3.50 for 15-minute video calls, says that the GettingOut app frequently drops calls midway through, but charges her for the expected duration. She said, “It drops you and then you need to make another 15-minute call, and then it drops you again, so you make another call. The costs add up.”

Video calls powered by Twilio in GTL’s app are surveilled and recorded. GTL is straightforward about this in its terms of service. But real-time interventions in video calls, and apparently arbitrary enforcement of rules, causes indignation among users.

Nika Valenzuela of Phoenix, Arizona, describes having a video call to a loved one in the 4th Avenue Jail cut off midway because she was wearing a tank top, which GTL customer service described as “inappropriate clothing.” She was charged for the entirety of this call. “It’s triple-digit weather here,” Valenzuela said.

The Marshall Project has found that people pay on average $63 per month for prison and jail video calls, with some people reporting expenditures as high as $500 per month.

The activist fight for prison phone justice continues to heat up at the local, state, and federal levels. New York and San Francisco have made calls from city jails free. Last August, San Francisco County became the first county to make jail phone calls free. On May 5, San Diego County did the same.

A bill that would make prison phone calls free across Connecticut, which has been stalled in previous legislative sessions, has found funding from that state’s appropriations committee, and is due for a full Senate vote. The federal CARES Act made phone calls from federal prisons free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for the future of Twilio’s relationship with GTL, Tylek said, “I would welcome working with Twilio to determine what its next steps should be.”