Sesame Street is officially in its flop era. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the long-running educational children’s program, has joined forces with Global Tel Link, a telecommunications company that has a virtual monopoly on inmate phone calls in the United States. According to a press release, GTL announced a grant to Sesame Workshop to “create new Coping with Incarceration materials for children dealing with parental incarceration.”
Sesame Street has tackled incarceration on its television show and through Sesame Street In Communities, a program that provides helpful learning material for children going through everything from autism and asthma to divorce and violence. But partnering up with GTL to provide support to children of incarcerated parents is like teaming up with The Dursleys to provide support to orphans: GTL’s entire business model exploits families dealing with incarceration.
From the GTL press release, bolding ours:
Incarceration of family members can be difficult and overwhelming for both children and their caregivers. According to a 2015 study, one in 14 children in the U.S., over five million total, have had a parent who was incarcerated at one point in their lives. It is important for families and caregivers to provide space and support to help children understand and process the anxiety, sadness, and confusion they may feel.
The forthcoming resources, releasing in Spring 2022 and made possible by the support of GTL, will build upon Sesame Workshop’s available materials to focus on helping children and their caregivers deal with both parental incarceration and with transition and community reentry for the incarcerated parent.
That sounds promising, if you ignore the fact that GTL is complicit in some of the most ghoulish prison practices. Most notably, charging astronomical rates for prison phone calls.
On Thursday, Worth Rises, an organization aimed at ending prison exploitation, shared a letter from a San Quentin inmate named Miguel, who accused GTL of making it difficult for him to communicate with his family.
“I am writing to your company, Global Tel Link, but I seek to appeal to a human being,” Miguel wrote in July of this year. He has not seen his family in over a year due to covid-19 restrictions. “How you have treated me and my family, your consumers, through your business practices has caused us great harm.”
“This comes as I, like other incarcerated individuals, am seeking to rebuild the family connection eroded by the added separation of covid restrictions and severe lockdowns. For me, this has meant not seeing anyone in my family in person for over a year... covid isolation has meant sporadic and limited phone calls with poor sound quality that is at times static-filled to an unbearable level, interrupted every few minutes by needless recordings, without privacy from the commotion of others calls, on 12 phones for 700-800 individuals which consistently break down or are ‘disabled’ (inoperable). In the first 12 months, this also meant the mass frenzy of monetarily ‘free’ phone call days that in actuality were very costly... to the incarcerated and our families.”
Ironically, in GTL’s own press release, they write that their partnership with Sesame Workshop will offer incarcerated individuals resources that “highlight the importance of communication and their ongoing role as a parent.”
Pretty hard to do that if you can’t even have a clear phone call, let alone if you’re unable to afford one, thanks to GTL. It’s a move that not only leaves incarcerated parents in a bind—it also disproportionately impacts low-income families, a cruel irony given Sesame Street’s historic accessibility to low-income families.
“GTL and Securus worked with jails to end in-person visits so that people too poor to pay bail cannot see or hug their kids,” Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, tweeted Friday. “Why? Because then they spend more $$, with kickbacks to the jails.”
Karakatsanis continued: “Now, using the very money it extracted from some of the poorest families in our society—families too poor to buy their loved ones out of jail—GTL is laundering its reputation by partnering with Sesame Street to teach children about ‘coping with incarceration’ of their parents.”
During a GTL prison phone call, a recording of a woman’s voice intones “thank you for using GTL.” How soon until that voice is replaced with Elmo’s?