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As e-Messaging Takes Off in U.S. Prisons, Complaints Over Service and Costs Multiply

by David M. Reutter

Historically, prisoners have been largely left out of the technology wave changing the way the rest of the world communicates and does business. It wasn’t until March 2009 that the first phones for prisoner use were installed by the Texas Department Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Before then, prisoners were limited to legal calls. To use the phones, prisoners could not have any major disciplinary infractions. Gang-affiliated offenders or those on death row could not use them at all. Almost 15 years later, the Internet and cellphone have swept society, but many prisoners are still left with a wall phone – at exorbitant prices – or snail mail.

Of course most prisoners use their electronic devices to communicate with friends or family members, some they have been out of contact with for years or decades. In Florida from around 1999 to 2009, accepting a 15-minute collect call from a prisoner to someone in Michigan cost around $26. Intrastate prisoner calls were so cost prohibitive that many prisoners were told not to call anymore.

Since then prices for phone calls have decreased, squeezing earnings for the prison profiteers peddling communication services. But smart executives foresaw the future lay in selling electronic media and messaging to prisoners. This idea was anathema to many prison and jail administrators; security concerns mandate that prisoner communications be monitored to prevent and disrupt criminal activity. But the high profits corrupt staff and prisoners can earn from black market sales of cellphones are an obstacle to totally eliminating that market.

Not only have the new electronic messaging devices eased the cost of staying in touch, they also allow prisoners to do other tasks: legal research, online classes to earn degrees. Technology, when properly used, has its benefits.

But because prison officials regularly deal with prisoners who lack hope and incentive to act in responsible ways, prisons were slow to allow prisoners to possess any type of electronic devices. A 2016 report by Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) looked at e-messaging, which is often mistakenly called email, inside jails and prisons. Back then, “the technology was experimental, untested, and viewed skeptically by many correctional administrators,” PPI recalled in a March 2023 update. “Since then, though, it has become common inside prison walls.” In fact PPI found that “at least 43 state prison systems and the BOP offer some electronic messaging option.”

Unlike most email services in the wider world, e-messaging is not free for prisoners. It also takes a bit more effort, since e-messages do not just appear in an email inbox. Users both in and out of prison must log into the vendor’s website to access messages. For prisoners, access initially involved logging into a shared kiosk to read messages. That has evolved into the distribution and use of electronic tablets. Some jurisdictions have communal tablets shared by a number of prisoners or detainees; others issue or sell individual tablets. In Florida, prisoners are issued a tablet at no cost. It is loaded with apps to access not only e-messaging but also podcasts, books, basic education, games, music, a calculator and a media store.

Two companies dominate the prison electronic media market. One, Securus Technologies, owns JPay – though in the last year, Securus has been moving to eliminate the JPay brand. It holds contracts in 22 states and controls about half the e-messaging market. The other major player is Global Tel*Link (GTL), recently rebranded as ViaPath, which provides e-messaging in 15 states, PPI reported. Together, these prison profiteers “dominate more than 81% of the prison e-messaging market.”

While prisoners are offered free tablets, there are costs for premium features. The music app requires purchasing songs for around $2 each; albums average $16. Prison-approved movie titles can be rented for 48 hours, if one can afford the $4.99 to $7.99 fee. A wide variety of podcasts can be streamed or downloaded for free, also free videos for various religious groups.

Replacing Physical Mail
With e-Messages

In April 2021, Florida eliminated all incoming mail – except legal mail, books, and publications – and required letters and other mail items to be scanned and sent electronically to prisoners. “This has technological implications; for example, users are unable to store and save old messages in a conveniently accessible way,” PPI noted. “There are also important practical implications. For example, imagine if, instead of writing his ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ on paper, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sent it via e-message. Under the terms of many contracts, the [prison] that he sent it from could attempt to assert ownership over the text, potentially stopping its spread and impact in the wider world.”

Because prisoners and their loved ones find it cheaper and faster to use, e-messaging has proved a boon for prison profiteers. For those jurisdictions that receive kickbacks, it provides additional revenue, too. Pricing and features vary widely by jurisdiction, but PPI’s “rate survey found the cost to send an e-message ranges from being free in Connecticut to a high of 50¢ in Alaska and Arkansas, with prices most often between 27¢ to 30¢.”

“This wide range,” the report continued, “suggests that prices are not tied to the actual costs companies incur to transmit a message but rather set at the point that will maximize profits.”

Securus’ bulk-pricing scheme for Florida prisons pegs the cost of a single message at 39¢, with bulk rates available: 10 for $4.40 or 25 for $11, which is 44¢ each; 45 for $18 (40¢ each); and 70 for $25 (36¢ each). This scheme actually penalizes the mathematically challenged and those who cannot afford, or do not need, the largest packet. In most instances, the poorest people are most penalized by e-messaging pricing schemes.

“About half of the states that offer electronic messaging include bulk-pricing schemes, where customers pay a higher cost unless they prepay for larger blocks of messages they may never use, ultimately wasting their money,” stated the PPI report. “Second, it charges the poorest people in prison – people who can only afford a small number of messages at a given time – the most money.”

In addition to pricing variations, there are also jurisdictional variations in the number of characters allowed per e-message. PPI found a low limit of 500 in Kansas and a high of 20,000 in several other states; 2,000 was a popular limit.

For all of these unregulated problems, prisoners are enamored with their tablets. In an environment that equates to nothing more than human warehousing, it affords a way to constructively entertain or distract one’s mind. Prisoners have related to PLN that they love the convenience of sending a message electronically, not to mention reducing interactions with gang members who control phones.

But problems exist with the devices. Despite built-in security packages to prevent “jail-breaking” – freeing the tablet from its vendor’s software controls – the practice became so common in Florida that prison officials collected all tablets in 2021 and forced Securus to upgrade its software. The hack not only results in a black-market tablet but also allows a prisoner to re-sell it as his own, after which he reports it stolen. Even if it really is stolen, the wait to obtain a new tablet is several months long.

Florida property room officials blame Securus, which has been slow to provide tablets for new admissions and for replacements. Local prison officials contribute to the frustration, using delays in issuing new tablets to prisoners who report theirs stolen as a sort of integrity test. “I don’t want to be the tablet police,” one property sergeant told me. “I have enough to worry about without that extra workload.”

Re-charging a tablet is a common problem. Charging stations in Florida prisons contain AC/DC converters and cables, but they are subject to theft by prisoners for their own tablets or cellphones. The theft occurs despite the stations being located inside the guards’ station. As the cords degrade from heavy usage and thefts occur, the number of working portals decreases. Over the last year, the two charging stations in my dorm went from about 150 portals servicing 152 prisoners to just six operable portals for that group of prisoners.

Overall, tablets and e-messaging are great for prisoners. These systems, however, are still under construction as profiteers refine their business model with this new technology, which exists primarily to maximize their profits and protect prison security. 

Additional sources: Prison Policy Initiative, Texas Tribune