A company that provides pay-per-minute telephone service to Hawaii prisoners and their families has agreed to pay up to $67 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the company has been improperly draining money out of some of its customers’ accounts.

People who used the payment system in the state correctional facilities and believe they may have been overcharged have until Tuesday to file an online claim in the federal District Court case, filed in Georgia and called Benson Githieya v Global Tel Link Corp.

The lawsuit alleges that from April 3, 2011 to Oct. 6, 2021, Global Tel Link or GTL had an “Inactivity Policy” that allowed the company to keep any money deposited in its system as advance payment for phone calls if the money wasn’t used within 180 days or less, according to an announcement of the settlement.

The lawsuit alleges that GTL policy violated the contracts that inmate families had entered into when they set up accounts to use the automated GTL telephone system to make calls to inmates or receive calls from them. The practice of draining inactive accounts “unjustly enriched” the company, according to the lawsuit.

“GTL denies any and all wrongdoing of any kind, and denies any liability,” according to a court-approved announcement of the settlement. “The Court has not decided who is right.”

The company that provides phone service for inmates and their families has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit alleging it drained money from inmates’ accounts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

GTL provides services to more than 2,300 correctional facilities in all 50 states, and all Hawaii facilities use the GTL system under a contract the state signed with the company in 2017.

Hawaii was among the places where the company zeroed out accounts that had money in them that went unused for extended periods. More recently, the company has been restoring balances in the accounts when customers call to complain.

When asked if the settlement raises concerns about the use of GTL or if the state has any plans to discontinue the contract, prison spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a written response to questions that the state has no such plans.

Hawaii receives up to $200,000 per year in commissions from GTL under its contract with the company, according to Schwartz.

That money is used to fund a system known as the Hawaii Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification system, or SAVIN. That system functions as an inmate locator, and sends out emails to notify interested parties when prisoners are scheduled for parole hearings, or are about to be released.

This is not the first time GTL has been the target of litigation for allegedly overcharging prisoners and others who pay to use the company’s systems to communicate with inmates.

The company agreed to a $25 million settlement in late 2020 in connection with a lawsuit filed by New Jersey inmates that alleged the company vastly overcharged users of GTL systems there.

The latest settlement provides for either a credit or a refund to current and former GTL customers for the full amounts that were retained from their accounts. However, “payments to former GTL customers may be reduced if the total credits/refunds exceed the available Settlement fund,” according to an announcement of the settlement.

Former customers who no longer have accounts with GTL must file claims by Tuesday to be reimbursed for the money that was drained from inactive accounts. Customers who still have accounts can contact the company to seek credits on their accounts for any money that was taken.

The settlement was approved by the court on Dec. 29, and the court will hold a hearing on Aug. 26 to consider whether to give final approval of the settlement. The court will also consider a request for lawyers’ fees and costs of up to $18.6 million. Three law firms were appointed as class counsel in the case. 

More information on the settlement is available at the website GTLPrePaidSettlement.com, or customers and former customers of the company can call 1-833-630-1412.

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