‘Free’ tablet programs in prisons and jails run on predatory pricing and threaten essential services
Last year, we looked at the New York State Department of Corrections’ announcement that it would be introducing a “free” tablet program for incarcerated people with the prison telecom company JPay. Despite the benefits, there were also an array of concerns—about the high fees charged, the lack of privacy in communication, and JPay’s history of exorbitant and exploitative pricing. Last week, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) reported that eight states have recently entered into contracts with prison telecom companies for similar tablet programs. [Mack Finkel and Wanda Bertram / Prison Policy Initiative]
PPI draws attention to some of the most troubling features of these contracts. With the blessing of corrections departments, which typically get a share of the revenue, companies charge users sky-high prices, contributing to the heavy financial load on families of the incarcerated and to the gulf between those who have access to family support and resources, however hard-won, and those who do not. Tablet users in prisons and jails are also completely vulnerable to these companies’ decisions to hike prices, suspend programs, or decide not to replace broken devices. [Mack Finkel and Wanda Bertram / Prison Policy Initiative] In Florida, the prisons department has been sued after a switch to a new digital media provider—the ubiquitous JPay—meant that people had to turn in their old media players and lose stored music files, for which they had paid over $11 million since 2011. [Adi Robertson / The Verge]
The companies behind these programs present them as beneficial for maintaining family ties, providing access to education, and enabling successful re-entry. Yet, as The Outline reported in August, “the economics behind what has become a free-tablet imbroglio suggest that in some cases the operation is no more than a money grab for every player in the chain, from state governments to the distributors.” [Michael Waters / The Outline]
Even when the tablets are provided free of charge, “if you want to do anything with that tablet, you have to pay,” Stephen Raher of PPI told The Outline. “And the prices are eye-raising for anyone, but especially for people earning 40 cents, $2 a day.” [Michael Waters / The Outline]
The corrections departments that set pennies as prison wages do nothing to negotiate lower rates for the tablet programs. When PPI analyzed the contract between JPay and New York’s Department of Corrections in July, it found the contract contained “virtually every exploitative trick we’ve documented in the past several years.” To transfer $20 to someone in prison will cost you an additional $4.15 in service fees. The person inside using that commissary money will be charged 35 cents for an email, “double that to include a photo, and quadruple to include a video.” The warped pricing continues, as The Outline reported: “A song can cost up to $2.50, and an album can be—somewhat inexplicably—as much as $46.” Video chats are $9 every 30 minutes. [Michael Waters / The Outline] And JPay even takes advantage of peak-use times to charge more. The cost of an email in some systems, Wired found, could go up to to 47 cents from 35 cents around Mother’s Day.
Worse still, prisons and jails also use tablet programs to justify cutting vital services that are free or inexpensive. In South Dakota, the corrections department introduced tablets and then did away with physical law libraries and paralegals. Last year, Pennsylvania banned book donations and introduced expensive e-books, through which people are charged for books that are largely available for free in the public domain. The Sarasota, Florida, county jail even confiscated Bibles, restricting access to the “Bible program” available on tablets. When systems do away with direct postal access, as Pennsylvania did last year, the substitute becomes digital mail scans and pricey electronic messages.
Last year, we looked at the effort by jails and prisons to eliminate or reduce in-person visits, and how the introduction of video call facilities is often used to justify these cuts. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put forward his—ultimately unsuccessful—proposal to reduce visits at medium-security prisons in 2017 it was part of a budget proposal that included a plan to introduce video calls. [Roshan Abraham / City Limits]