A cruel profit: Exploiting the vulnerable in Charlotte

By Toussaint Romain - Contributing columnist, Observer editorial board

A Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department deputy demonstrates in October how video visitation works.
A Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department deputy demonstrates in October how video visitation works. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

What if corporations and law enforcement officials got together and conspired on how to exploit poor people for profit. Would you be surprised?

Probably not.

But would you be surprised to learn that it’s happening right under our noses at the Mecklenburg County Jail?

Global Tel Link (GTL), a billion-dollar company, is working with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to exploit poor people for profit. Here’s how it works: GTL contracted its service with the Sheriff’s Office to provide online jail video visitation services. Once GTL installed the new equipment, the Sheriff’s Office terminated other forms of visitation. GTL was then left with a monopoly on how inmates communicate with loved ones.

To no one’s surprise, GTL also sets outrageous prices. After a free first “virtual visit,” one video visitation costs $12.50. That’s a lot of money. Especially when GTL uses platforms like Facetime and Skype, which are almost free. Consequently, those in jail (and their families) end up paying for services that they cannot afford.

But what’s the alternative? Not speaking to your loved ones in a moment of crisis?

Advocates for this technology say it increases jail efficiency, eliminates contraband and enhances visitor convenience. I don’t buy it. I have been visiting clients in the Mecklenburg County Jail for the past 10 years. What those advocates say and what I see are two different things.

Toussaint Romain

I see the money. It’s only about the money. If it isn’t, then take away the profit incentive and see if those corporations stick around.

Still, I know who it hurts. During a jail tour last year, I learned that women are less likely to receive financial support from their family or friends. Sadly, the high price tag associated with this new video visitation exacerbates the anxiety felt in the jail as these women desperately try to call home so that they can hear their child’s voice. This happened a lot during the recent holiday season.

“Well,” you say, “if you don’t want to be in jail, then don’t commit crimes.” Sure, I agree. But most people in Mecklenburg jail have not been convicted of a crime. They are simply waiting for a court date and cannot afford to bond out. They are too poor to get out of jail, and their families are too poor to get them out. So they’re not really prisoners of crime, but prisoners of poverty. And that’s who is hurt the most. GTL and our Sheriff’s Office are hurting folks they know are poor and vulnerable.

The solution is simple. Restore in-person visitations. They are effective in reducing crime. In fact, research reveals that the more in-person visits a prisoner receives, the lower the chances of reoffending after release. A single visit from a family member or friend could make a difference in whether a person ends up behind bars.

Let’s do the right thing. Don’t allow for-profit companies and a government agency to exploit one of our most basic human needs. Especially in a town that professes its undying love and commitment to the upward mobility of these people.

Romain is an assistant public defender in Mecklenburg. Email: Toussaint.Romain@