The non-profit, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) has released a comprehensive study on communication options for prisoners, focusing on email services while also citing issues related to phone calls, visitation and postal mail. According to the January 2016 report, a common thread among these communication options is the creative methods that private companies use to monetize the desire of prisoners to stay in touch with their families and loved ones.
The PPI study, while concentrating on the various forms of communication between prisoners and the outside world, reiterates the accepted and documented fact that frequent contact with family members and friends has been shown to reduce recidivism, which makes profiteering on such services all the more perverse.
Following a decade-long examination of the issue, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clamped down on exorbitant prison and jail phone calls, first in 2013 with an order capping interstate (long distance) rates, then again in October 2015 with caps on all prison and jail phone rates which are scheduled to go into effect this month. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.40]. High phone rates have resulted from “commission” kickbacks that phone service providers pay to corrections agencies, usually based on a percentage of the revenue generated from prisoners’ phone calls.
As a result of the FCC’s actions, some prison phone service providers have focused on other, less-regulated communication options in an attempt to replace lost revenue due to the caps imposed on phone rates.
Many county jails and some state prison systems have no limit on the number of calls a prisoner can make, provided they have the funds. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) generally limits prisoners to three hundred minutes of phone time a month, which translates to approximately ten minutes a day. Under such circumstances, the availability of other communication options, including email, takes on added significance.
Of course email for prisoners is not email in the free-world sense, as prison email is subject to security monitoring, long-term storage by government agencies and possible investigation by either corrections officials or prosecutors. Some facilities have only a one-way system, whereby in-bound email messages are printed and delivered to the incarcerated recipient. Others, such as the BOP’s TRULINCS system, provide two-way email communication. Another difference is that prison email is usually fee-based with each email costing around $.20 to $.60; prisoners and their families are the only people who pay for email, which is free for everyone else through services like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and many others. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.35].
The PPI study also identified the main players in the prison phone industry, including Global Tel*Link, Securus and Telmate. It was the rampant profiteering by such companies for decades which resulted in pressure that led the FCC to eventually cap prison phone rates. All three corporations – two of which are owned by private hedge funds – have not been shy about making campaign contributions and providing substantial kickbacks to corrections agencies in exchange for lucrative monopoly phone contracts.
These same telecom companies are now providing fee-based email services and, according to PPI, are bragging to their lenders that almost two-thirds of their income now comes from unregulated prison and jail email revenue. Other companies that offer email services for prisoners include Inmate Calling Solutions, JPay and Smart Communications US, Inc.
The study makes clear that it is time for the FCC to bring its regulatory power to bear to eliminate some of the same abuses in prison email systems that have long plagued the prison phone industry. Specifically, among other suggestions, PPI recommends that the FCC require reasonable rates for prison email services, as well as limits on additional fees; that detention facilities which offer email should provide “equal or greater access to postal mail”; and that corrections officials should assume responsibility for data security and require advance approval of any rate increases.
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News and one of the leaders in the fight to limit price-gouging by prison phone companies, shared its data with PPI for this report. HRDC also advocates for reform of prison video visitation, email and other advanced communications services, including restrictions on the rates and fees charged to prisoners and their families.
Source: “You’ve Got Mail: The promise of cyber communication in prisons and the need for regulation,” Prison Policy Initiative (Jan. 2016), available at www.prisonpolicy.org
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