Florida Prisoners Get Tablets, Lose $11.3 Million in Digital Music
by David M. Reutter
In 2011, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) entered into a contract with Access Corrections that allowed prisoners to purchase MP3 players which could be hooked up to a kiosk for music downloads. Over the six-year life of the contract, prisoners bought 30,299 players at around $100 apiece plus 6.7 million songs for $1.70 each, for a total of about $14.4 million – an amount that netted the FDOC $1.7 million in kickbacks from Access.
In August 2017, sales of the MP3 players were halted after prison officials reached an agreement with JPay, owned by prison telecom provider Securus, to sell tablets to Florida prisoners. But since FDOC policy allows prisoners to possess only one electronic device, a directive was issued that would make the MP3 players contraband.
As part of its contract with both vendors, the FDOC forced prisoners to swap their MP3 players for a JPay tablet by January 23, 2019. The players turned over to prison officials were slated for disposal unless prisoners paid to have the devices returned to Access Corrections, which agreed (for a $25 fee) to have security features unlocked and the music downloaded to a CD and sent to an outside address. The music purchased for the MP3 players was not transferable to the JPay tablets.
“We have made every effort to ensure inmates can retain non-transferable music by sending their devices and music to an outside address,” said FDOC spokesman Patrick Manderfield, who explained that the department’s hands were tied because “devices/services are provided by two different vendors.”
Since it began tracking them in December 2017, the FDOC has received at least 260 grievances related to the directive.
“[M]y family does not have use for such an obsolete [MP3] device, nor do I want it upon my release,” Florida prisoner Felipe Avila wrote in a grievance.
“The [FDOC] promoted the MP3 Program and encouraged participation to ensure a larger share in the profits made by Access Corrections,” prisoner William Demler wrote, after purchasing 335 songs from Access that he thought “would belong to me forever.”
“Discontinuing the program and forcing inmates to give up their players without compensation amounts to an act of fraud,” he added.
Prisoner Katherine Freeman wrote in a grievance that since she had made over $2,200 in music purchases since January 2014, largely using money received from her family, the state was going “to increase profits to JPay at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.”
Timothy Hoey, assistant warden at the Homestead Correctional Institution, where Freeman was held, replied that the decision was made for the benefit of Access and JPay. It was “not feasible to download content from one vendor’s device to another, not only due to incompatibility reasons, but the download of content purchased from one vendor to another vendor’s device would negate the new vendor’s ability to be compensated for their services,” he wrote when denying Freeman’s grievance.
The FDOC insisted that prisoners will receive “added value” with the tablets. Those who give up an MP3 player and do not buy a full-feature tablet are eligible to receive a “mini” version of JPay’s tablet at no cost, according to Manderfield.
While upset at losing the investment in their MP3 players and songs, prisoners who were able to purchase a tablet were pleased with its offerings. They reported that the music is cheaper because it offers a larger variety of albums, allows WiFi connectivity for email and music downloads, and contains applications for a calculator, stopwatch, calendar and games. The tablets also have the ability to add video visitation in the future.
JPay already provides prison phone and money transfer services in Florida, from which the FDOC netted $3.9 million in kickback payments during the 12-month period ending in March 2018. Like the Access Corrections contract, JPay’s deal lets the state keep any leftover funds after program costs have been paid. Unlike the previous contract, though, which funneled that money to the state’s general fund, under the arrangement with JPay it goes directly to the FDOC’s Administrative Trust Fund.
Sources: www.jacksonville.com, www.eff.org, www.hypebot.com, Rolling Stone