[Pnews] How Companies Like JPay Are Making Millions Charging Prisoners to Send An Email

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 7 10:25:08 EDT 2018


https://www.wired.com/story/jpay-securus-prison-email-charging-millions/


  How Companies Like JPay Are Making Millions Charging Prisoners to Send
  An Email

Author: Victoria - August 3, 2018
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Last July, as she has for the past 10 years, Dianne Jones spent 45 
minutes on a city bus heading to the local WalMart.

There, under fluorescent lights, she scanned rows of brightly colored 
birthday cards to pick out the perfect greeting for her son—let’s call 
him Tim—who is imprisoned more than 100 miles from his mother’s home 
just outside New Orleans. The card she settled on was dark brown with 
trees and a birthday message that read, “For the best son in the world.”

Tim was in his 10th year of a 30-year prison sentence for an armed 
robbery he committed at age 17; he would not be able to see, let alone 
sit under or touch, a tree for the next 20 years. (Citing safety 
concerns, Jones asked that her son’s name not be used.) After Jones, her 
daughter, and her three grandchildren signed the card, she mailed it 
off, happy that Tim would know that his family was thinking of him.

Days later, the card was returned. Puzzled, she called the prison where 
she learned the facility had instituted a prohibition on greeting cards. 
If she wanted to send a card, a prison official told her, Jones would 
have to pass along her greeting electronically using JPay 
<https://www.wired.com/story/how-a-group-of-imprisoned-hackers-introduced-jpay-to-the-world/>, 
a company bringing email into prison systems across the nation.

Prisons are notoriously low-tech places. But urged on by privately owned 
companies, like JPay, facilities across the country are adding 
e-messaging, a rudimentary form of email that remains disconnected from 
the larger web. Nearly half of all state prison systems now have some 
form of e-messaging: JPay’s services are available to prisoners in 20 
states, including Louisiana.

On the surface, e-messaging seems like an easy and efficient way for 
families to keep in touch—a quicker 21st century version of 
pen-and-paper mail. Companies like JPay cover the price of installing 
the systems; prisons pay nothing. And, the argument goes, closer family 
connections are a win-win for prisons and inmates. “Maintaining a 
positive network of support is really important to their future success 
when they rejoin the community,” says Holly Kramer, a communications 
representative for the Michigan Department of Corrections, which has 
contracted with JPay since February 2009. “Electronic messaging can help 
facilitate that.”

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.

This year, Jones decided against choosing from the 24 electronic 
birthday card designs that JPay offers. Instead, she waited for her son 
to call, paying 21 cents a minute to JPay’s parent company Securus, 
which provides phone services to Louisiana’s prisons. “I just talked to 
him on the phone and cried,” she says.

JPay began in 2002 as a prison money-wiring service, offering a quicker 
alternative for families who wanted to mail a money order to 
incarcerated loved ones. The expediency came with a price: The fees for 
each transaction could be as high as $11.95 
<https://www.jpay.com/Facility-Details/Oklahoma-Department-of-Corrections/Mabel-Bassett-Correctional-Center.aspx>. 
When JPay launched its e-messaging services in 2004, it pitched it as a 
way of fostering closer relationships between prisoners and the outside 
world. “Part of JPay’s mission is to provide technology…[that] empowers 
those individuals with access to educational tools and assists in their 
overall rehabilitation process,” says Jade Trombetta, JPay’s senior 
manager of brand marketing and social media. She declined to explain the 
reasoning behind JPay’s prices or price fluctuations. “We have nothing 
more to say on the matter,” she told WIRED.

In 2011, JPay pitched its services to the National Association of State 
Procurement Officials and the Multi-State Corrections Procurement 
Alliance, associations that secure contracts for state government, 
including prison systems, presenting itself as a state-of-the-art 
start-up with an unusual business plan. “JPay is not a commissary 
company nor is it an inmate telephone company,” the proposal read 
<https://www.bidsync.com/DPXViewer/7-15-70-30.01_JPay_TechProposal_AttA.pdf?ac=view&contid=116448&docid=6387557>. 
“We are a software company focused on building and delivering innovative 
inmate service-applications.”

At the time, the company boasted contracts with 21 state correctional 
agencies, along with “numerous jails and private prisons.” It already 
served more than 1.2 million people behind bars. That year, according to 
a document obtained by the Huffington Post, JPay reported a revenue 
<https://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/SecerusLenderPresentation.pdf> of 
$30.4 million; three years later, its revenue had more than doubled to 
$70.4 million.

On the screen, however, JPay’s technology hardly evokes a sleek startup. 
Instead, it seems more like a flashback to the mid-1990s. To send a 
message, incarcerated people stand in line for one of several kiosks 
dedicated to e-messaging and use a rudimentary form of plain text to 
compose their messages. Once logged in, a sidebar offers the options of 
composing a new message, clicking on a message to read its contents, and 
scanning already-sent messages. The sidebar also contains a count of how 
many more messages a person is able to send—based on the number of 
credits they’ve purchased—and an option to purchase more.

Prison commissaries have always turned a small profit 
<https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/commissary.html> by selling paper, 
envelopes, and stamps. But with few recurring costs, e-messaging is a 
much more lucrative enterprise—and not just for JPay. In 2014, more than 
<https://www.businessinsider.com/apple-of-prison-techs-real-story-2015-7> 
14.2 million e-messages were sent over the service. With many prisons 
reaping a roughly 5-cent commission 
<https://www.scribd.com/document/371610959/C161422-JPAY#from_embed> per 
message, prison systems that use JPay stand to collect $710,000 on 
e-messages alone. As use of e-messaging increases, these numbers stand 
to balloon. In Michigan, for example, imprisoned users send 800,000 to 
one million messages through JPay each month.

There is precedent for corporations looking to turn prison 
communications into an easy money-making enterprise. 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 
<https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/60001328413.pdf> 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 <http://www.correct.state.ak.us/inmate-phone-system> $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 
<https://www.prisonpolicy.org/>. 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. (In some states, such as Michigan, these 
commissions go to a prisoner benefit fund, which pays for items such as 
recreation equipment.)

In some states, JPay is sweetening the deal by offering free tablets 
that allow prisoners to skip kiosk lines—and encourage the use of its 
product. In Missouri, the company is scheduled to give each of the 
state's more than 33,000 prisoners their own tablet. In February, it 
announced it will do the same 
<https://www.newyorkupstate.com/news/2018/02/company_giving_tablets_to_ny_inmates_expects_to_get_9m_from_inmates_over_5_years.html> 
for New York state's 51,000 prisoners. “The vendor charges fees to 
inmate and inmate family/friends for using the services,” reads the 
contract between the New York State Department of Corrections and 
Community Supervision and JPay. From the New York partnership alone, the 
company expects to reap $8.8 million over the next five years.

And, while all prisons still allow some form of written correspondence, 
in several states, the advent of e-messaging has been coupled with 
greater restrictions on regular mail.

In April 2017, Indiana’s Department of Corrections passed new 
regulations making not only greeting cards, but also colorful envelopes, 
computer printouts, and even typed sheets of paper verboten. The 
reasoning, Basinger says, is an uptick in narcotics and synthetic 
narcotics, such as fentanyl, which can be soaked into colorful paper. To 
prevent drugs coming through the mail, prisons now allow only 
handwritten letters on white lined paper, “like every student in the 
country uses,” Basinger says, which are easy to monitor and scan for 
illicit materials.

While Indiana has the most draconian mail regulations, others are 
following suit. In October 2017, the Michigan prison system passed its 
own set of restrictions prohibiting envelopes that are not white, 
letters written in inks other than blue or black, and greeting cards 
that are larger than 6 x 8 inches. Idaho's prisons have had similar 
restrictions for the past year.

But the side effect of these new restrictions is a greater reliance on 
JPay. For Nicole, who was recently paroled from an Indiana prison and 
asked asked that her last name not be used, these restrictions 
effectively cut off communication with her aunt. In previous years, her 
aunt sent her cards and letters on colorful stationery for her birthday, 
Christmas, and any time Nicole completed a prison program. Nicole kept 
each and every one them.

With the new mail restrictions, communication dwindled. Nicole’s aunt, 
who is 87, doesn’t own a computer. And in Indiana, where Nicole is 
incarcerated, JPay kiosks are in the prison’s dayrooms—the communal area 
of each housing unit where women use the microwave, watch one of two 
televisions, stand in line for the telephones, and socialize. Often, 
Nicole explains, the prison dayroom is like “trying to get in and out of 
a mall at Christmastime.” You also have people behind you interrupting 
to see who’s next,” she says. “You’ll be interrupted multiple times.” 
Arguments and fights often broke out about whose turn was next or if 
someone allowed a friend to cut the line.

In 13 states—including, soon, Indiana—an imprisoned person can avoid the 
headaches of the communal kiosk by buying a tablet, but again, there’s a 
price, which varies state by state. In California, for instance, where 
hourly prison wages range from 8 to 95 cents, a tablet costs $160. That 
price does not include music, games, podcasts, or e-books, all of which 
must be bought separately. In Michigan, the newly introduced JP5 costs 
$40 (with $10 going to the prisoner benefit fund). Currently, just under 
27,000 of the state’s nearly 40,000 prisoners 
<https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/Sec._401_615715_7.pdf> 
have these players.

In some states, the rise of JPay has brought a wave of activism, 
designed to block increasingly restrictive mail policies. In 2017, 
Charles Sweeney and Anthony Delarosa, currently imprisoned in Indiana, 
filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections 
challenging mail restrictions as violations of their First and 
Fourteenth Amendment rights. In May 2018, a federal judge ruled that 
they could not only proceed but certified their suit 
<https://ecf.insd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?12017cv3550-47> 
as a class-action, meaning that they are now suing on behalf 
<https://secure.in.gov/idoc/files/Indiana%20Department%20of%20Correction%20March%202018%20Total%20Population%20Summary.pdf> 
of the state’s nearly 26,000 prisoners.

These actions can’t come quickly enough for Jones. In February, Jones 
went to her mother’s house in New Orleans for her family’s annual Mardi 
Gras barbecue. As they do at every get-together, they snapped picture 
after picture, but Jones could only afford to send her son a few. ‘Where 
are the rest of the kids at?’ Tim asked her after receiving her message. 
But Jones, who spends about $40 a month on JPay stamps, could not afford 
to send photos of her cousins’ children.

Still, she’s grateful for what she can afford. To buy her son a tablet, 
Jones, who works part-time and earns $600 every two weeks, put off 
paying that month’s electric bill. She wonders what other, less 
fortunate families do.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

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