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‘Free’ tablet programs in prisons and jails run on predatory pricing and threaten essential services


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: ‘Free’ tablet programs in prisons and jails run on predatory pricing and threaten essential services

  • Woman faces life in prison for sharing drugs with another woman in jail

  • A record number of people are in ICE custody

  • Judge jails Chelsea Manning for refusing to testify before grand jury

  • Effort to abolish felony disenfranchisement in Hawaii will have to wait for 2020

  • Freed from prison but struggling to get the second chance

In the Spotlight

‘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]

Stories From The Appeal

 

Sheriff Billy Woods of Marion County, Florida [Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Gerardo Mora/Stringer]

Woman Faces Life in Prison for Sharing Drugs With Another Woman in Jail. A 22-year-old woman overdosed and died. A 24-year-old faces first-degree murder charges. Did the system fail them both? [Tana Ganeva]

Stories From Around the Country

A record number of people are in ICE custody: In the negotiations to end the government shutdown, Congress reached an agreement to raise the limit on the number of people detained by ICE to 45,724. But the agency was already over that limit. As of Jan. 30, the government was detaining more than 48,000 people it said were undocumented. At the time, that was more than had ever been held. Now, the Daily Beast reports, 50,049 people are detained, including individuals and families. This is more than ICE’s budget allows for, so the Department of Homeland Security may be diverting funds from other agencies, including FEMA. One woman who was in a privately run immigration detention center in Texas spoke with the Daily Beast in December. She had fled El Salvador to escape “violent persecution for her sexual identity.” Of the private prison, where she worked for $3 a day, she said: “This is a really terrible place. It’s inhumane. It’s like a torture chamber.” [Spencer Ackerman / Daily Beast]

Judge jails Chelsea Manning for refusing to testify before grand jury: On Friday, a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, found Chelsea Manning in contempt of court and ordered her jailed until she testifies before a grand jury or that grand jury is no longer sitting. Although the proceedings are secret, it is believed that the subpoena to testify was related to an investigation into Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, was sentenced to 35 years for leaking Iraq war documents to WikiLeaks in 2010—the longest sentence ever imposed for leaking a government document. She was held in conditions condemned as torture and underwent her gender transition while imprisoned. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017. [Rachel Weiner and Ellen Nakashima / Washington Post] Manning criticized the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and issued a statement saying, “We’ve seen this power abused countless times to target political speech. I have nothing to contribute to this case and I resent being forced to endanger myself by participating in this predatory practice.” [Natasha Lennard / The Intercept]

Effort to abolish felony disenfranchisement in Hawaii will have to wait for 2020: Some Hawaii lawmakers have pushed to fully abolish felony disenfranchisement, but their bill stalled in the Democratic legislature in February. The legislation had passed another committee earlier in the month, a significant development in itself given that few states already allow incarcerated individuals to vote. “The state’s carceral system disproportionately ensnares Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who are therefore also disproportionately excluded from the electoral process,” according to  The Appeal: Political Report. Advocates vowed to press ahead in 2020, and said that their proposal this year had suffered from a lack of visibility that they will need to remedy next year. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report]  

Freed from prison but struggling to get the second chance: Matthew Charles, who became the face of the federal First Step Act in December, had a rental application rejected last week. The letter Charles received from the leasing agency read: “We regret that we were unable to approve your request. This leasing recommendation is because of one or more applicant’s prior criminal history or rental housing related civil record history.” Charles was released Jan. 3 and now works full time. He served 22 years of a 35-year sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction. Charles’s situation reflects housing discrimination and the general unavailability of subsidized housing for people returning home from prison. A friend of Charles’s told the Tennessean: “It’s a shame that a man who was the president’s guest at the State of the Union Address can also be denied an apartment because of mistakes he made decades ago.” [Matthew Charles / Tennessean] See also Marie Gottschalk writes in Jacobin about how the First Step Act “nicks the edges of the carceral state while bolstering disturbing trends in criminal justice reform.”

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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