Until Saturday, South Dakota inmates had access to lawyers during their time in prison. Starting this week, the lawyers are gone, replaced by a subscription to a legal search engine, run on tablet computers from a company accused of exploiting inmates.
South Dakota law requires prisons to provide inmates access to the courts system. For years, the state’s Department of Corrections contracted with lawyers who helped update inmates’ documents and answer their legal questions. But as long as inmates can research court cases online, the state has upheld the law, the DOC says.
That’s why, starting this week, South Dakota prisons are replacing on-site lawyers with tablet computers pre-loaded with a subscription to LexisNexis, a legal research program typically used by lawyers and governments, not untrained inmates.
And the tablet computers are being provided by a prison telecoms company that the federal government has previously accused of grossly overcharging inmates for phone calls.
South Dakota’s DOC heralded the elimination of on-site lawyers as a cost-cutting measure.
“This has been a very expensive thing for taxpayers,” the DOC Secretary Denny Kaemingk told the Argus Leader of the state’s legal aid program.
The LexisNexis subscription cost $54,720 for the first year of service, Kaemingk said. The department’s legal aid contract cost $135,400 in 2017, although Kaemingk said the actual costs were closer to $276,000. South Dakota’s DOC requested a budget of $116,905,842 for the 2017 fiscal year.
The state won’t pay a dime for the tablet computers, which the prison phone company Global Tel Link agreed to provide free of charge to every South Dakota inmate earlier this year. But GTL is sure to make a profit off the deal.
The tablets will allow inmates to pay GTL for calls and texts to family, as well as monthly subscriptions for music and video games like Solitaire. GTL did not return The Daily Beast’s Sunday inquiry on their rates for texting and calls. The company previously told the Argus Leader that their monthly subscriptions would cost $4 for ebooks, $6 for video games, $20 for music. In Colorado, where GLT struck a similar deal for “free” tablets, texting rates will reportedly start at 49 cents per sent or received message.
The company has a bad reputation for trying to squeeze inmates for cash. Controlling 50 percent of the U.S.’s prison phone market in 2015, GTL has been accused of wielding a near-monopoly in some areas, and using that position to charge exorbitant rates for calls with inmates. The Federal Communications Commission attempted to cap the company’s call rates after finding that GTL charged up to $17.30 for 15-minute calls, resulting in what the federal agency described as "unreasonably high" phone bills. In August, the company paid a $2.5 million settlement in a Mississippi racketeering case.
Now, South Dakota inmates can theoretically access legal information on GTL-provided tablets, which are also selling them video game subscriptions. LexisNexis offers an extensive database of previous court rulings, but can be difficult for a legal amauteur to navigate, even for educated inmates who speak English as a first language.
“For some of the lower functioning inmates or less well-educated inmates, it’s a lot like to giving a book to someone who can’t read,” Jason Adams, a South Dakota lawyer told the Argus Leader. “Giving you access to [LexisNexis] doesn’t teach you how to do legal research.”
In an official 2017 manual on South Dakota inmates’ rights, the state appeared to acknowledge that some inmates might need additional assistance from a human — not a search engine.
“Legal staff is available to provide legal assistance to all inmates, including inmates who are illiterate, non-English speaking and/or disabled,” the document says of the newly discarded program.Eliminating the legal staff also means eliminating a third party that can help inmates file complaints against the prison. (One South Dakota inmate is currently suing his prison over its lack of an air-conditioning system, which the inmate claims leads to dangerous conditions.) The cuts also eliminate the legal staff who helped inmates stay current on their legal forms.
On Monday, South Dakota inmates’ legal aides will be replaced by a search box, and the DOC will have saved between $80,000 and $221,000 out of their nine-figure budget. Global Tel Link, meanwhile, will be collecting on Solitaire subscriptions.