That the prison industry in the US is abusive towards its inmates is well known. What is perhaps not so well known is how it takes advantage of their captivity to squeeze even more money out of them and their families. As Victoria Law writes, one way they do that is by demanding that families can only communicate with inmates through private companies that have been granted monopoly rights to provide this service at exorbitant rates. Since both prisoners and their families are desperate to keep in touch with each other, they are ripe for exploitation. One of the worst companies is called JPay.
In the outside world there are numerous companies offering free email accounts—Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Mail.com—but inside prisons companies charge a fee, a token JPay calls a “stamp,” to send each message. Each “stamp” covers only one page of writing. Want to send photos of a nephew’s graduation, a niece’s prom dress or a new baby? Each picture costs an additional stamp. A short video clip? That’ll be three stamps. With the postal service, stamp prices are fixed, but JPay’s stamp prices fluctuate. Shortly before Mother’s Day, for instance, a stamp cost 35 cents; the price rose to 47 cents the following week. For a few hundred dollars, prisoners can skip kiosk lines by buying a tablet—a relatively expensive purchase that tends to lock them into JPay’s services.
Inside prisons, e-messaging companies are quietly building a money-making machine virtually unhindered by competition—a monopoly that would be intolerable in the outside world. It’s based in a simple formula: Whatever it costs to send a message, prisoners and their loved ones will find a way to pay it. And, the more ways prisoners are cut off from communicating with their families, the better it is for business. Which means that stamp by stamp, companies like JPay—and the prisons that accept a commission with each message— are profiting from isolation of one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. And, with prisoners typically earning 20 cents to 95 cents an hour in jobs behind bars, the cost of keeping in touch most likely falls to family members and friends.
For many years, phone calls from jails and prisons were unregulated, allowing private telecommunications providers to charge as much as $1 a minute for a call. After years of organizing by prisoner rights advocates, the Federal Communications Commission voted in 2013 to cap the costs of interstate phone calls, calling it a first step toward ending the exorbitant costs of staying in contact. Two years later, the commission extended the cap to intrastate calls. But after five prison phone providers, including Securus, filed separate petitions challenging the FCC’s decision, the ruling was overturned—leaving pricing entirely in the hands of private companies, with charges ranging from 96 cents to as much as $18 for a 20-minute call.
Prisoner advocates say that services providing email services to correctional facilities are simply following the same price-gouging formula. “It doesn’t cost that much to send an email,” says Peter Wagner, director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Though e-messaging companies compare their business to postage stamps, in reality traditional mail—in which a person can send several photos or five pieces of paper for a single set price—is a much better deal. “This is a company that is not transparent about its pricing,” Wagner says. “Because facilities are not paying the bill, they have no incentive to worry about it.” In fact, because they share in the revenue, the facilities have an incentive to maximize the use of such services.
Florida is one of the worst states, partnering with JPay to exploit prisoners even more by taking away music they had already purchased
In April last year, the Florida Department of Corrections struck a deal with JPay. The private company, spearheading a push to sell profit-driven multimedia tablets to incarcerated people across the country, would be allowed to bring the technology to every facility in the nation’s third-largest prison system. But there was a catch.
Inmates had already been purchasing electronic entertainment for the last seven years — an MP3 player program run by a different company: Access Corrections. For around $100, Access sold various models of MP3 players that inmates could then use to download songs for $1.70 each, and keep them in their dorms.
The demand was clear. More than 30,299 players were sold, and 6.7 million songs were downloaded over the life of the Access contract, according to the Department of Corrections. That’s about $11.3 million worth of music.
Because of the tablets, inmates will have to return the players, and they can’t transfer the music they already purchased onto their new devices.
Note that prisoners were being charged about twice the market rate for downloading songs that they now cannot transfer. As Cory Doctorow says:
There is no technical reason why the files can’t be transferred: the decision to prevent prisoners from keeping the music they bought at a steep markup is a purely commercial one. It may just be a coincidence that Jpay stands to earn fresh millions from prisoners re-purchasing their music, and that the prison system stands to earn millions more in commissions, but whatever the reason, the whole thing is manifestly unfair, and imposes millions in costs on the struggling—and innocent—families of incarcerated people.
The Florida Department of Corrections is already earning record sums from Jpay, taking a cut every time a prisoner’s family pays to transfer money into the prisoner’s Jpay account. The music-repurchasing bonanza that will follow the Jpay switchover represents an especially lucrative windfall for the department: under the terms of its Jpay deal, excess cash generated by the program goes straight to the department’s budget (under the old Access Corrections deal, the excess went to the Florida general treasury).
Some prison systems are reforming. For example, the city of New York recently moved to make all phone calls by inmates free.