After ‘Serial’ Season Is Over, Global Tel-Link Will Keep Charging Inmates Outrageous Phone Fees

The last episode of the current series of hit podcast “Serial” was made available for download this morning. It’s the last time that millions of listeners will hear a brand name that has appeared in every episode but was likely unfamiliar to them. The people over at Global Tel-Link probably aren’t heartbroken that they’re losing the free product placement, though. As a telecommunications company providing phone service for prisoners, consumer name recognition isn’t very important to them.

Each episode of Serial opens with theme music and the scene-setting pre-recorded announcement: “This is a Global Tel-Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility.” If you are interested in audio stories, true crime, or spending lots of time questioning the nature of truth and the limits of human memory, you might enjoy “Serial,” which is a detailed exploration of the events surrounding the murder of a high school student near Maryland in 1999. A lot of issues surrounding the case involve phones: there’s the Best Buy pay phone that may or may not have existed and that the electronics chain joked about last week on their Twitter feed, and the cell phone belonging to the man convicted of the murder that pinged various towers around Baltimore on that day.

Yet the series would be very different or wouldn’t exist without the community phones and Global Tel-Link. Since recording devices aren’t allowed during prison visits, the core of the program is hours of taped phone interviews between host Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and has spent his whole adult life in prison. Making phone calls from prison is not cheap, or even all that affordable. Yet maintaining connections outside of prison is important, especially for people who want to lead crime-free lives once they’re out. Bloomberg Businessweek calculates that the 40 taped hours of phone calls could have cost around $2,500 in prepaid prison phone credits.

How could they run up that kind of phone bill? That’s based on the highest rate found in U.S. prisons, which is $3.95 for the first minute and 89 cents for additional minutes. While the contracts with every prison differ, the bids to provide phone service for prisoners work in pretty much the opposite way from how government contracts are supposed to work. Instead of the lowest bidder, prisons choose carriers according to what share of the revenue the phone company will give to the prison. The highest rates have a mind-boggling 96% of phone revenue going to the prisons. The practice is specifically banned in some states, and the Federal Communications Commission is on the case.

Serial’s $2,500 Phone Bill and the Prison-Calling Racket [Bloomberg Businessweek]