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Drakeo's Acclaimed Album Highlights How Much Prisons Profit From Phone Calls

The rapper Drakeo the Ruler titled his latest album after the prison phone service provider GTL, whose lines he used to record it, leaving a trail to follow the money through a controversial industry.
Courtesy of the artist
The rapper Drakeo the Ruler titled his latest album after the prison phone service provider GTL, whose lines he used to record it, leaving a trail to follow the money through a controversial industry.

Thank You For Using GTL opens with a recording of what you hear when the artist Drakeo the Rulercalls from the LA County Men's Central Jail — a requirement that you consent to being recorded yourself before the call can begin and a read out of the balance on your account with the telecom company. It proceeds in similarly meta fashion, pitting reality against entertainment and deploying the bureaucratic fact of Drakeo's continued imprisonment as a foil for a musical style that's subtly inventive, as carefree as it is savvy.

Drakeo, who's still a rising star in LA's rap scene despite having spent the last 33 months in jail, couldn't have made this particular project sound this way if he was home. The financial arrangement the LA County Sheriff's Department has in place with the prison phone company GTL enables Drakeo's solve for the problem of his incarceration: an album that sounds like it was recorded over the phone and doesn't suffer for it. He's dragged GTL into an artistic endeavor, and in so doing required every outlet that engages with it to delve into the business practices of a industry being challenged on multiple fronts. The biggest prison phone service providers are the subject of a class action lawsuit for price fixing, while the latest stimulus bill, which has passed the House and sits with the Senate now, includes a bill to make all calls from state and local prisons and jails free. Drakeo's songs don't belabor the point, but they're barbed. He sounds reasonably frustrated.

Drakeo's given name is Darrell Caldwell and in July 2019, he was found innocent of murder and attempted murder. The jury hung on two other charges based on California penal code statutes that went on the books in the late 1980s, were added to in 2000 and allow active gang members to be charged for crimes committed by other gang members. That's right: LA County contends that Drakeo's musical collaborators, the Stinc Team, constitute a gang. The jury didn't buy it, voting 10-2 and 7-5 for acquittal on the two gang charges, but the District Attorney's office has decided to retry Caldwell on them. He's being held without bail while waiting for the retrial.

"You don't have to be involved," he says. "You don't have to know nothing. You just have to be a gang member. But then the twist is that my rap group is my gang? Come on."

During his original trial, the prosecution tried to use his lyrics and music videos against him. Members of his rap group that appeared on songs and in videos were tied to the investigation of him and pressed to supply information that could be used to prosecute. Drakeo was convicted of a firearm possession offense but has already served the maximum amount of time he could be sentenced for it. His case and the nearly three years he's spent behind bars while officially and presumably innocent of all the other charges brought against him have cost him and his family.

"I lost a lot of friends that didn't have records that got records now," he says. "I lost a lot of money. I lost a lot of time, a lot of time away from my son, my family. My mom lost her job, my sister's scared to come out here cause the police scare her."

Drakeo and his teams, both legal and musical, had been confident he'd win his retrial and planned to get back to work, according to his main producer and A&R on Thank You For Using GTL, JoogSZN. "We had a bunch of songs that he already had wrote that basically we were just waiting for him to get out to record," Joog says. But the retrial was postponed, then delayed by the pandemic. With no end in sight, Drakeo decided to stop waiting, wrote some new songs, and Joog stepped up. "He would rap over the phone," he says. "I'll find a beat in my stash. 'Cause I got a cool little stash for him, that nobody else gets to hear."

Joog is a companionable presence on the album. An almost self-conscious bit of repartee between him and Drakeo — "Damn, like that Joog?" — is repurposed as an adlib and an anchor throughout, and Joog's response to his artist's requests — "Can you fly the hook back in now, Joog?" — are wordless but on time. As a listener, your awareness of Joog, of his reliability, throws the loneliness of Drakeo, who's spent much of his time at LA Men's Central on the 2904 floor, which is essentially solitary confinement, into sharp relief.

Joog pointed his speaker at the phone and hooked the phone into his computer so he could record Drakeo, who would try to perform each song in one take, matching his voice with the beat. Simple enough, but because everything had to happen over the phone, the project was expensive: from paying a mixing engineer to clean up the sound of the recordings coming over the phone line — to make Drakeo's lyrics audible, of course, but also so his personality would be legible — to the price tag on the GTL calls.

I asked Drakeo his best guess of the amount he's spent on phone calls since he's been locked up. "Oh, man," he says. "It has to at least be in the hundreds of thousands. Yeah, it's crazy how much they charge to do this. I mean, I figured I would have to start making money after this — they taking all my money."

And he's not the only one.

Two companies, GTL and Securus, have contracts with 80% of the prisons and jails in the U.S. If you're trying to stay in contact with somebody who's incarcerated, you have no choice but to use the prison telecom company that the prison or jail did a deal with; they have no financial incentive to compete for your business. Your emotional and practical ties to the family member or friend on the other end of the line stretch the limits of what you think you'd spend on a phone bill. Any competition in the bidding process is over the revenue share the companies will give to the institutions.

GTL, which won the contract for the jail holding Drakeo, declined to comment for this story. Its current agreement with the LA County Sheriff's Department states that every minute of a local phone call costs 25 cents, which adds up to $3.75 for a 15-minute call. LASD gets more than half of that.

"The commission rate to LA County is 67.5%," says Bianca Tylek, who runs Worth Rises, an organization that works to expose the commercialization of the criminal legal system. "So that means for every 15-minute phone call, the county takes home $2.53 and the corporation takes home the rest. They're partners in a profit-sharing agreement."

In 2015, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights surveyed1500 formerly incarcerated people and their families. One in three of those families went into debt to pay for phone calls and visits. 87% of the people who end up paying for them are women.

Legally, the jails' piece of the money has to go into a fund that's used primarily for the education and welfare of the people confined there. Most facilities all over the country, including LA County Men's Central Jail, interpret "primarily" to mean 51%. "But then the remaining 49% they can spend on jail operations," Tylek says. "That could mean, as it has in many places, buying tasers and weapons and riot gear rather than any other type of services that may actually go to improving the conditions and lives of incarcerated people."

The producer JoogSzn helped Drakeo create his latest album by recording his vocals through the prison phone line.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The producer JoogSzn helped Drakeo create his latest album by recording his vocals through the prison phone line.

Drakeo's producer, Joog, has spent time in the jail that his friend is in now. He says he was trying to get one more mat to sleep on the entire time he was there. "It's thin as a little novel," he remembers. "I'm just trying to be there and serve my time. I'm not asking for no Tempur-Pedic, just give me another mat." He says there was no point in asking for a pillow or covers. "The conditions are crazy bad," he says "That s*** is real trifling, like, they were supposed to tear that whole jail down."

The LASD-GTL agreement also contains a $15 million annual minimum payment. The math on that means GTL is assuming the money paid to talk on the phone by the families and friends of people at just that jail is at least $22 million each year.

There's another tether between the market for communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones and the people who enforce their physical separation. In 2011, GTL was bought by American Securities for $1 billion. The private equity firm raised money for the purchase from numerous investors, including public pension funds. One of those was the LA Firemen and Police Pension. "That means that the Fire and Police Pension gets paid out," says Tylek. "It's a partial investor in GTL."

Which means that the very people who are prosecuting Drakeo are creating wealth off of his need to be in touch with people outside — and his family's need to connect with him.

Securus, the other big prison telecom company, is financed similarly. Platinum Equity, which is headquartered in Beverly Hills, Calif., and owned by Tom Gores, the owner of the Detroit Pistons who also sits on LACMA's board, bought it in 2017 for $1.6 billion.

The prison telecom industry is a relatively recent development. "On Rikers Island in New York City," says Tylek, "in 1991, phone calls were free and phone calls weren't recorded." Thirty years on, after sustained pressure from activists like Mrs. Martha Wright-Reed, the industry is in another period of change. As of May last year, phone calls out of New York City jails are free again, and three weeks ago, on Aug. 10, San Francisco County made phone calls from its jails free. They are all, however, still being recorded.

One of the ways these firms wrested prison and jail contracts from the major telecoms in the '90s was by promising extra security — monitoring calls, recording and archiving them, even inventing new surveillance technology. Their product is ostensibly about protecting the public from crime orchestrated behind bars.

But when we know somebody is listening to our conversations, we don't speak the way we would if they were private. "Do you want anybody in your business?" asks Tylek, pointing out that people in jail are participating in their own defense and preparing for trial, as well as arranging childcare and financial planning, all while their families are going through it. People with the means to make bail are exempt from this intrusion.

As Drakeo's original trial showed, law enforcement's inclination or ability to accurately read the syntax and cultural product of the people they're policing is lacking.

"People use completely different language [on the phone]," says Tylek. "Not just to code their own language but because they have their own dialect, and their own slang and their own vernacular. And those are often completely contorted in court to mean something that they never meant to begin with."

Tylek says it does not surprise her that the surveillance proffered by prison telecom doesn't work as advertised. "Very rarely, if ever, really, we hear of stories that law enforcement has been able to stop anything or prevent anything from happening," she says. "No. In fact, they're used to prosecute people."

Drakeo's well aware. "I always just say, man, if they listening to all my conversations, I hope they get the hundred thousand times that I said I'm not guilty and didn't do nothing," he says. "They always leave those parts out."

Knowing that the monitors were hearing his new songs before anybody else got them, he had to weigh carefully what parts to leave in. "Before I came to jail I used to think about that, like, you can say whatever you want. I mean, that was kind of the whole point of me making a mixtape anyway, 'cause I still should be able to say whatever I want."

Thank You For Using GTL is not a catalog of misfortune. And though the means by which it was recorded put the songs into evidence, it doesn't spend all its time making a case for Drakeo's innocence. As far as prison phone justice, he notes the problem, names the offender and leaves it to his listeners to extrapolate. Critics have called it resourceful and noted the absence of desperation in it. Joog's fellow producer in HitMob, Ron-Ron, calls it traffic music, a term that is what it sounds like. "If you bailing down the 405, you stuck in traffic," says Joog, "you need something to listen to. We mainly make music to make the subs go crazy."

Drakeo says he wasn't interested in performing penitence.

"I'm just trying to be myself because, I'm just letting you know, nobody wants to really hear that s***," he says. "I know how it is. When I was on the streets and people was like, 'Yo, this person's finna get out of jail,' the first thing I thought was, 'Man, I hope this n**** don't rap about jail all day.' Cause I don't want to hear that s***. I might say some things relating to my case or me being in jail, but I'm not finna make a whole mixtape about being in jail."

The tape Drakeo and Joog made fills imaginative space. The pairing of objectively lovely and occasionally plangent production with Drakeo's intricate mutterings that bounce out of the pocket and wind their way back over make it move on multiple levels. Joog calls it a protest tape. It feels like momentum.

The critical attention and commercial success of Thank You for Using GTL is part of Drakeo's and Joog's strategy for accruing public pressure around his case. "Got a 8.5 on Pitchfork," Joog says. "Outdid Future, Bad Bunny — it was up there with Run the Jewels. And then, the audience that the tape is capturing is a different audience because, for one, his voice is in lo-fi. So now it's in a whole different category." It made NPR Music's list of the top 25 albums of the first half of this year. And not to state the obvious, but it got his story on All Things Considered, a program that airs nationally to millions.

By expressing himself through song, Drakeo says, he runs the risk of authorities again twisting his words. But this is his livelihood. As a self-supporting artist, he must also be an entrepreneur and so he is attentive to the market.

"At our concerts, it's not people that's from the hood — like, it is, but, it's white people. Like, that's what they want to hear," he says. "What am I supposed to do? That don't mean because they're listening to my music they're gonna go back and carry guns and all this. Most of these kids are from the suburbs. Like, come on. But this what they want to hear. It's what I'm making. Yeah, it's kind of their fault."

Audiences are wild for onscreen gangsters, from The Sopranos to The Departed to Narcos to Breaking Bad to The Wire. Some of those guys are based in reality, ripped from the headlines, while others are completely fantastical. Outlaw stories are fertile ground for explorations of morality, agency and complicity, but if detectives and DAs jack rap lyrics for confessions and music videos for evidence, then the people who make rap music are endangered by their exploitation of the same genre. On the phone from downtown Los Angeles, a half hour from the Hollywood sign, Drakeo argues rappers deserve the same immunity that screenwriters, producers and actors enjoy.

The prosecutor in Drakeo's case argued that his intent in going to a particular party in December of 2016 was to harm another musician, who was not advertised as planning to go to or perform at the party, wasn't in fact there and has since said publicly that he doesn't believe Drakeo was a threat to him. The detective investigating Drakeo tried to hang his case on the lyric, "And you can disregard the yelling, RJ tied up in the back." It's called a storyline.

"I'm just a regular dude that just happened to know how to rap. Went through a lot and then, basically, this is the only way that I felt that I could take care of my family without getting into trouble," says Drakeo. "Somehow they're using this against me. So what, they don't want me to go out here committing crimes and doing stuff, but they don't want me rapping about it neither? So would you [rather] me rap about it and not do it or be actually out here doing crimes? I don't understand."

Drakeo says it was only when his reputation began to grow that law enforcement began targeting him, that it feels like they view him, incarcerated, as a trophy. That doesn't mean that people who keep a low profile are safe.

"I feel like they trying to use me as an example. They're gonna try to use me as case law," he says. "If they use this against me, they're gonna use it against people that don't have no following, they don't have no influence. Look how they're treating me. How you think they're gonna treat a regular person?"

But, he says, there's something the kids from the suburbs can do. They can show up for his court dates.

"I tell people to come to court because it's different," he says. "The judge and the DA — they tend to have a different attitude when they see you have people that's actually there for you, that can see what they're doing. I just want people to see the reality of the situation, because it sounds like, 'Oh, that can't be true,' when you looking at the blogs and stuff. But when you actually in court, you're like, 'Wow.' Like, 'These people are out their minds.' "

I asked Joog what he hoped Thank You For Using GTL might do for his friend. "It's like being a boat in the middle of the ocean," he says. "I can move the boat where I want to move it, but at the end of the day the ocean's in control. So the ocean would be the system."

And everyone, from Joog and Drakeo, to the LA County Sheriff's Department — and maybe some kid from the suburbs — is working it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
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