It is no surprise that family members and friends of those in prison want to be able to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones. Often times, the most common way for them to communicate is to mail greeting cards the prison in which their loved ones are held. However, in many cases, they no longer can simply send these greeting cards, a fact that many have found out the hard way. Those who sent cards to their loved ones have often received the cards back in the mail a few days later. When they question prison officials about why their cards are rejected, they are surprised to hear about the new trend, JPay.
JPay was launched in 2002 as a money-wiring service for the prison system. Initially, it offered families a quicker way to get money to their loved one. Although the service itself was beneficial, it came at a cost of nearly $12 per transaction. In 2004, JPay extended its services to include messaging. With the new dynamic messaging service, those outside of prison have the ability to email inmates on the inside. The system itself remains unconnected from the web as a whole, and thus does not allow other online activity to occur.
From the outside looking in, JPay seems like an innovative and efficient idea. Emails are obviously much easier for families to send and allow them to interact on a more frequent and convenient basis. In addition, companies like JPay are covering all the costs to install their systems in prisons, yielding no upfront cost to the prisons themselves. In turn, prisons and governments alike seem to really buy into the idea because they know that a strong family connection is something that could benefit the prisoner in the long run. Jade Trombetta, JPay Executive, elaborated saying, “part of JPay’s mission is to provide technology…[that] empowers those individuals with access to educational tools and assists in their overall rehabilitation.”
The catch is that each letter sent is not free, but rather prisoners and their loved ones are charged to send their emails. While many companies and websites offer free email accounts and a free flow of information, emails between prisoners and the outside world are charged, much like postage. Using JPay, both inmates and their loved ones can send up to one page of information for each stamp. If they want to have more than one page or include a photo or video clip, they have to pay for three stamps. JPay stamp prices fluctuate over time and peak times seem to lead to an increase in prices; however, the exact causes for the fluctuations are not known. Each stamp costs a minimum of 35 cents, meaning that sending a short video clip will cost at least one dollar per message.
JPay has been sued in the past for forcing prisoners to use JPay cards as money within the prison, having fees added to every transaction. Some prisons have also faced criticism for making visitation more cumbersome for the sake of increasing usage of the JPay systems, which increases prison revenue. A 2014 report from the Center for Public Integrity brought some bad publicity to JPay and prisons, forcing them to cap per minute phone rates at .27, a fraction of what JPay was previously collecting from prisoners and their families.
In addition to the prices, the technology behind the emails and communications with loved ones is cumbersome and obsolete. To send a message, inmates have to stand in line at one of the few kiosks available. When they get to the front and log-in to their account, they are able to view the messages that have been sent to them or create a new message. Creating a new message employs a simple plain text. The window also features a simple sidebar that shows how many “stamps” or credits the inmate has left and they have an option to purchase more.
The key feature that allows JPay and companies like it to succeed is the natural monopoly that exists. For prisons that utilize JPay, there is no other way to communicate. Inmates can not use another system to get messages out or leverage prices against each other. In addition to no competition, there is also no substitute. Simply put, there is nothing that can compare to that communication with family members and friends as that is the only channel. As a result, those on the outside tend to be willing to pay whatever the cost because they understand the importance and benefits of staying in contact with those on the inside.
JPay is certainly not the first company to take advantage of the prison system. In the past, phone calls from jails were often unregulated. In turn, telecommunication companies charged as much as $1 per minute as they knew people would still be making calls regardless of price. Finally, in 2013, the Federal Communications Commission voted to place an upper limit on phone call prices. Yet, that decision was later overturned leading prices back to their previous high levels. Inmate advocates argue that companies like JPay are doing the same thing. Peter Wagner the Director of the Prison Policy Initiative said, “This is a company that is not transparent about its pricing. Because facilities are not paying the bill, they have no incentive to worry about it.”
With its growing success, JPay pitched its model to the National Associate of State Procurement and Officials and the Multi-State Corrections Procurement Alliance in 2011. At the time, they already had established contracts with 21 state correctional agencies, a handful of jails and prisons, and reached a total of 1.2 million inmates. With their widespread success, they came to these associations pitching what they referred to as a top-notch start-up. In their proposal, they highlighted, “we are a software company focused on building and delivering innovative inmate service-applications.”
In recent years, JPay has worked to move away from the outdated technology it has used and has worked to alleviate the problems experienced by past prison telecommunication companies. One way they have done so is by offering prisoners a “free” tablet so that they can skip the line. Of course the tablet is a gateway to plenty of fees for JPay. It’s still $0.35 for email postage and an additional $0.70 to add a picture, buying a song costs $2.50, and a live chat runs $18 an hour. It was further reported that prisoners wanting to send their mothers an email for Mother’s Day, were charged about 40% more because of volume.
One could argue against the access to these devices at all in prisons, and since several prisoners in Idaho recently exploited a vulnerability on a JPay table and were able to steal over $225,000 in JPay credit, one might have a point. But the true question should be the ethics of a system profiting from incarceration, especially by use of a predatory pricing model, such as charging 150% more for a song download, or $0.35 to send an email.
“It’s prices that are way over market rates, and it just seems like predatory pricing, just pure profit-seeking,” – Stephen Raher, Attorney with Prison Policy Initiative
Profit through these means is not capitalism-it’s exploitation. With incarceration consistently on the rise, it might make one compare profit motives behind prison vendors with the military industrial complex. And when one does that, the answer to the question of “why we lock up so many Americans?” is the same answer to “why we’re also fighting wars?”: there’s just so much damn money in it.