Amid a pandemic that’s roiled incarcerated populations across Colorado, people held at the El Paso County jail have lost an age-old comfort — the ability to keep letters, cards and photos in their cells.
In a change that took effect in early April, the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center will no longer receive or distribute mail for inmates, the sheriff’s office has confirmed.
Instead, relatives and friends are directed to send all correspondence to a for-profit vendor in North Carolina, where it is scanned, uploaded to a server and made available to inmates digitally via tablet computers they check out during their free time. After 30 days, the original copies of their mail are destroyed unless the sender arranges for them to be returned, authorities say.
What the sheriff’s office calls an anti-drug smuggling measure has sparked complaints by inmates who say the absence of photos and letters in their cells deprives them of a key connection to home, complicating efforts to regain their footing.
“I can’t keep it with me, or look at it and ponder on it,” Angelica Salazar, who has been held at the jail since January, said in a telephone interview from her ward. “To me, it’s even pointless to get mail like this.”
Inmates may keep mail received prior to the transition, she said.
The change is part of a broader shift at the jail that has made a variety of fee-based services available on the same tablets used to review mail — a potent money maker for the sheriff's office, which stands to collect up to $1.5 million per year under a revenue-sharing agreement with the company providing the tablets.
Civil rights advocates questioned if inmates would be kept from the new tablet computers — and therefore their mail — for disciplinary violations or other reasons, potentially opening up the jail to lawsuits.
“There is a constitutional right to receive communication from loved ones, even if you are in prison, even if you are in the hole on a disciplinary infraction,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which is evaluating the new policies. The watchdog group filed an unrelated class-action suit against the jail last December, alleging that “deliberate indifference” to COVID-19 risks set the stage for a late-October outbreak that became the state's largest among jails and prisons.
Sheriff’s Lt. Christopher Rogers, who is helping to implement the new mail policies, defended the shift, and said inmates would be granted access to the tablets to review their mail even if other tablet services are revoked for misconduct.
"A lot of people aren’t happy with change, but they have more access as far as mail," Rogers said. "The only complaint I’ve heard is not being able to have that mail in their hand to look at."
Inmates' ability to check out the tablets depends on the security level in their wards, in turn determining access to their mail.
People in lower security wards can request tablets during a nine-hour block of each day, except when they are on lockdown, Rogers said.
But questions remain about the level of access for other inmates.
Inmates in higher-security wards can request tablets over a two-hour stretch of each day, during which they also have to shower and make any phone calls to family, friends and attorneys, said a social worker who makes regular visits to the jail. She said people in solitary confinement do not get access to the tablets at all. The sheriff's office did not respond to a follow-up question asking them to address policies for inmates in those higher-security areas.
Once inmates have checked out a tablet, they get to keep it for one hour, according to Rogers. They must then pass it to any waiting inmates and until it's available for another one-hour turn. Inmates can keep the tablets as long as no one is waiting, checking them out in rolling one-hour intervals.
The switch to virtual mail was implemented in part to cut down on drugs being sneaked into the jail through incoming mail, Rogers said. Paper soaked in certain liquid narcotics, and pills and powder secreted into greeting cards, were a problem for years, he said.
“We have approximately 30 instances of drugs being mailed into the facility since last April. And for the last five years, we had 88 cases,” Rogers said. “It seemed like a good time to make this place a lot safer and a lot more secure.”
The tablets were provided under a 15-month-old contract with Global Tel Link Corp. that also provides for inmate telephone and video visitation services, documents show.
The first shipment of tablet computers arrived Dec. 28, and according to Rogers, the jail now has roughly 375 available for inmates. The tablets contain free services — access to scanned mail among them — and paid services including movies, music and the ability to make and receive phone calls. Inmates can also access their commissary accounts, the sheriff's office said.
The tablets came with lucrative financial incentives for the Sheriff’s Office, which picks up at least 20% of all fees generated through their use, according to an estimate the company provided in a February 2020 fee proposal obtained by The Gazette under an open records request.
Premium movies, music and games are generally available to the user for 3 to 5 cents per minute, the document shows. Phone calls through the tablet are billed at 44 cents per minute for local calls and 60 cents per minute for long distance. Video calls — which inmates say are currently provided through separate kiosks — are 25 cents per minute.
“You will never earn less than $1.28 million per year, if (average daily population) remains consistent,” Global Tel Link told sheriff’s officials in its 2020 fee proposal, noting it was more than triple the annual average of $376,000 in revenue the sheriff’s office took in from commissions through a previous phone service contract.
Pandemic-related pressures cut the jail's population by roughly 30% for much of 2020, dropping the sheriff's take by approximately the same margin in the first year of the contract, records show. By the end of March, the sheriff's office had received $963,233, according to figures provided by sheriff's spokeswoman Jacqueline Reed.
Monthly commission payments from Global Tel Link have been on the rise in 2021, corresponding with a climb in the jail's population. By April, the jail had reached its pre-pandemic population of roughly 1,200 inmates, and the month's commission payment topped $100,000 for the first time, according to Reed's figures. That means the contract is roughly on pace to meet the company's revenue projections unless the jail's population is again reduced.
Money collected from the contract with Global Tel Link is restricted to the Inmate Commissary Fund, Reed said.
“The money in this account is spent for educational, recreational and social benefit of the inmates in the El Paso County Jail and to supplement direct inmate needs,” she said in a written statement. “It is similar to the Colorado Department of Corrections’ Canteen, Vending Machine and Library Account.”
Reed provided the newspaper with a breakdown on $785,000 in recent spending from the commissary account, including $49,600 for newspaper subscriptions, $26,000 for maintenance and repairs and $25,000 for clothing purchases. By far the largest expenditure was for "MH Medical Service," at $664,000. Reed did not respond to a request for more information about the medical service being offered, and further details about the spending were not immediately available.
The contract shows that Global Tel Link programming also gives the sheriff new surveillance tools when it comes to inmate communications. Phone and video chats can be recorded and monitored by authorities — which is nothing new — but the company also touted its ability to also process physical mail through a text recognition program, allowing authorities to do key-word searches of inmates' letters and cards, according to the Global Tel Link proposal. The sheriff's office didn't address whether the the new surveillance tools were actually implemented.
Critics complain that correctional phone service fees can exploit inmates and their families, and the ACLU's Silverstein characterized the jail's rates as predatory.
“They’re squeezing money out of the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of the population — the prisoners or their loved ones who have to put money on the books,” Silverstein said.
He argued that expensive phone policies clash with the goals of the criminal legal system because they deter close ties between inmates and their families, which can be "counterproductive" to the goal of reintegrating into society.
The impact is disproportionate for poorer inmates, said veteran Colorado Springs defense attorney Phil Dubois.
“If you’re in there with no money, you are severely restricted in your ability to communicate with families and friends,” he said.
The added isolation gnaws at those held for weeks or even months and years, said Colorado Springs attorney Alison Blackwell. She emphasized that many inmates haven't been convicted of crimes and are still waiting for their day in court.
“Some are mentally ill. Some have addiction issues. Some are innocent of what they’re charged with, and nobody’s paying attention to their cases because the courts are so backed up," Blackwell said. "It’s heart breaking. I can’t even imagine what it’s like.”
The Global Tel Link fee proposal shows that jail administrators had the option of reducing local call rates from 44 cents per minute to as low as 11 cents per minute. Doing so would have slashed the jail's expected annual commission of $1.28 million to $710,000, the proposal said.
Reed, the sheriff’s spokeswoman, said that video visitation will eventually be available for free to those who travel to the video visitation center outside the jail.
The facility, which has 24 terminals where people can make free visits to inmates, was closed early in the pandemic and has yet to reopen. For much of last year, the jail offered free online video visits through a different jail vendor, Black Creek Integrated Systems Corp. That service has ended, and paid online video calls through Global Tel Link are the only current option for video chats. Sheriff's representatives did not respond to a question asking when the video visitation building would reopen.
Inmate Angelica Salazar’s husband, Mike Peterson of Colorado City, said he spends hundreds of dollars per month funding Salazar’s phone, video and commissary and tablet accounts.
Even so, dropped video calls and poor sound quality plague their time together. Their visits must be scheduled two days in advance, and are frequently canceled or dropped because of lockdowns or service outages, leaving him waiting by the phone or gazing at a frozen image on a screen. But at least he has the money to stay in touch, he added.
“I know there are women in her ward who can’t afford to,” Peterson said. “She’s had me put money on a couple girls’ books she felt sorry for.”
Questions over fees at the El Paso County jail come amid a push by Democratic state lawmakers to curb excessive costs of jail and prison phone services across Colorado.
House Bill 1201 would direct the state Public Utilities Commission to set maximum per-minute rates for debit, prepaid and collect calls at correctional facilities.
The bill would also require service providers to maintain records and data and supply them to the commission for publication on its website.
Global Tel Link provides inmate phone services to 2,300 correctional facilities across the U.S., including 23 Colorado Department of Corrections facilities, the company said in contract proposal documents.
A spokesman for Global Tel Link said the company’s services have kept inmates in touch with loved ones at a time when visitations are otherwise barred at many facilities due to COVID.
The company also launched a program last year allowing inmates to call family members for free, the spokesman added. It's unclear if the option was available at the El Paso County jail, and inmates and their advocates said they weren’t aware of any way to make free phone calls.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story incorrectly named the provider of the jail's commissary service. It is administered under contract with Keefe Group, according to the Sheriff's Office.