An attorney with the DeKalb public defender’s office has sued a telecommunications firm that provides prison inmate calling services throughout the state, claiming the company routinely defrauds inmates, their families and their attorneys by draining accounts of funds that were intended to pay for inmates’ calls.
The suit, filed April 3 on behalf of criminal defense lawyer Benson Githieya, contends that Global Tel Link, which markets itself as GTL, converts calling accounts set up by families, friends or lawyers of inmates to “inactive” status if customers do not receive an inmate call within a 90-day period. The company then, without notice, drains the accounts of any unused funds, the suit claims.
Githieya’s suit, for which he is seeking class action status, is the second one filed against GTL in federal court in Atlanta this year. A suit filed in February by Maryum Cooper—a California woman whose brother was jailed for two years in DeKalb County—claims that GTL violated federal communications laws by ignoring federal rate caps, overcharging Georgia customers and paying commissions to state- and county-run jails and prisons in return for exclusive contracts. At the time, GTL had an exclusive contract with the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office to provide inmate calling services at the county jail, Cooper’s suit says.
Cooper’s suit, also filed as a potential class action, claims that after the Federal Communications Commission ruled in 2013 that GTL had overbilled customers in violation of federal law, the company lowered its rates but never reimbursed the customers it had overbilled.
Githieya could not be reached for comment. But Decatur lawyer James Radford, one of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs in both suits, told the Daily Report that GTL is “the No. 1 provider of inmate calling services nationwide,” and that the company has exclusive contracts to provide inmate calling services with the Georgia Department of Corrections as well as a number of county sheriff’s offices throughout the state.
Radford said the company secures monopoly contracts with the state’s jails and prisons, then charges inmates and their families exorbitant rates that they have no choice but to pay. To secure those monopoly contracts, the lawyer said, GTL pays a substantial percentage of its revenues to the agencies that operate them in what amounts to a kickback.
“That’s one of the reasons they are charging these exorbitant rates,” he said of GTL. “They are basically passing on the cost of that kickback to the consumer.”
A GTL spokeswoman could not be reached for comment. Michael King, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig who is defending GTL in Cooper’s suit, withheld comment until he could contact his client. No attorney has filed a notice of appearance on GTL’s behalf in Githieya’s case.
A spokeswoman for the state Corrections Department, which is not named as a defendant in the suits, could not be reached.
Githieya’s suit claims that in March 2014, the lawyer opened and funded an account with GTL’s inmate calling services for a specified amount of telephone time with inmates at an unnamed facility. But from March 12, 2014, through June 10, 2014, Githieya was not contacted by any inmates at that facility. On June 10, 2014, GTL classified the account as “inactive” and removed the funds from the account, according to the lawyer’s suit.
The suit also contends that GTL violated Georgia’s civil racketeering statutes and federal communications laws by luring customers into funding calling service accounts under false pretenses, knowing that it intended to lay claim to the funds for its own use in as little as 90 days.
Cooper’s suit claims that GTL, as far back as 2008, charged Georgia consumers participating in interstate calls with inmates a $3.95 connection surcharge, plus 89 cents a minute per call. In a final rule issued Nov. 13, 2013, the FCC determined that the Georgia rates were, according to the complaint, “the highest in the nation” as well as “grossly excessive relative to the cost of providing such services” in violation of federal law.
The FCC also held that a major contributing factor to the exorbitant rates were the commissions that GTL paid to the state’s jail and prison operators in order to secure the business.
After issuing its findings, the FCC imposed a rate cap of 25 cents a minute for collect calls and 21 cents a minute for prepaid calls. GTL, Cooper’s complaint said, subsequently modified its calling services contracts in Georgia. However, according to the complaint, those who had paid GTL the higher rates prior to the FCC’s determination that they violated federal law were never reimbursed by GTL.
Cooper spent about $2,000 on telephone calls with her brother, who was incarcerated in the DeKalb County Jail from November 2012 through December 2014, her complaint says. According to Cooper’s complaint, GTL paid the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office a commission in excess of 58 percent of all fees it collected in return for its monopoly contract. Cooper’s suit seeks at least $5 million in reimbursements on behalf of a potential class that could include hundreds, if not thousands, of GTL customers. A spokesman for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, which is not a defendant in the cases, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
“We think this is a nationwide thing,” said Decatur lawyer Andrew Lynch, Radford’s co-counsel in both cases. “We think it’s happening every day in 48 states.”
“These companies literally have a captive audience,” Radford said. “A person in prison has no other way to have telephone communications with a loved one except through this company. They can basically charge whatever they want to charge. It’s a real hardship on families who are institutionalized.”
Lynch said that when he first was told by GTL customers that GTL was draining accounts of unused funds after 90 days, “I didn’t think it could really be going on. … But that’s exactly what they do.”
Lynch also said that GTL’s customer contracts include no provisions that allow it to label accounts inactive and then strip them of funds. “Their own contract doesn’t give them the ability to do this,” he said.