Prison Systems Increasingly Provide Email – For a Price
by Derek Gilna
Prison officials and corrections experts have long recognized that helping prisoners maintain contact with the outside world decreases the stress, isolation and loneliness that are part of the inherent nature of incarceration. Further, regular communication with those outside of prison can help prisoners successfully reenter society following their release, resulting in lower recidivism rates. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.24].
In addition to the usual methods of communication such as phone calls, in-
person visits and postal mail, a growing number of states have joined the federal Bureau of Prisons in providing email services for prisoners. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.24].
For example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections established a modified email system in 2012 that allows prisoners to receive emails from approved outside parties. The emails are received on computers in prison mailrooms, printed and then delivered to prisoners with their regular mail. There is no direct access to the Internet.
Iowa-based Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) signed a contract with Minnesota to provide the prison-based email service after operating a six-month pilot program. The company also supplies secure email services to the Bureau of Prisons through the Corrlinks system.
Responding to those who question why prisoners deserve access to email, ATG CEO Atul Gupta said, “People think that you’re doing these things for inmates who really shouldn’t be getting anything. You’re giving them email ... [but] it’s not really email. It’s a communications system.”
“We’re getting them ready for society,” he added. “Otherwise, they’re going to come right back, and that’s not what we want.”
Gupta noted that the email service doesn’t cost the prison system or taxpayers anything, as either the prisoners or those who contact them via email pay for the service.
“Most states, what they will do is, they will look at it in terms of saying, ‘Hey, can we generate some revenue? Let’s do that,’” he said.
How is that revenue generated? The same way that corrections agencies make money from prison phone services – by receiving a portion of the income from the company, in the form of a “commission” or kickback.
In Minnesota prisons, email messages cost $.30, with $.10 going to ATG and $.20 going to the state. People can send messages to Minnesota prisoners through the email system but prisoners cannot respond via email, unlike in some other states.
In addition to Minnesota and the federal prison system, ATG provides email services for state prisoners in Iowa and Oklahoma, plus one immigration detention facility. The company’s largest competitor is JPay, which supplies a variety of services to prison systems, including money transfers, video visitation, MP3 downloads and email.
As of April 2014, JPay provided email services for state prisons in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Georgia (women’s prisons only), Missouri (certain prisons only), Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Virginia (certain prisons only), plus several county jails and individual facilities.
In many of those states, prisoners can send as well as receive emails; family members access the email system online, while prisoners use special kiosks in their housing units. In some cases, photos or short video files can be attached to the messages – for an additional fee.
Prisoners and those who want to communicate with them via email buy “stamps” to send each message, which cost from $.17 to $.60 each depending on the prison system and the number of stamps purchased; the average price per email is $.40 to $.50.
As with ATG, JPay has a commission-based business model, in which it provides a portion of its revenue to the contracting agency. In Tennessee, for example, under a proposed fee schedule attached to a 2012 contract, JPay offered to provide prison email services for $.40 per message with the state receiving 4% of the revenue.
Other companies that provide email services to prisons and jails include Smart Jail Mail (which charges $.50 per message), ICSolutions, and prison phone service providers Securus and Global Tel*Link.
The growing number of states that provide prisoners with access to email is a reflection of today’s increasingly digitally-connected world, where electronic communication has become the norm. The main difference is that outside of prison, email is free.
Sources: www.mprnews.org, www.jpay.com, www.a-t-g.com, www.smartjailmail.com, www.icsletters.com
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