“Free” plates for prisoners are not free

Original author: Michael Waters
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JPay tablet. Image source: JPay

Download music album - $ 46. Email - 47c. Video chatting with my wife - $ 18 / hour.

The ugly scandal turned around “free” tablets for those deprived of their liberty: they turned out to be not only an overly expensive paid system “for training and communication”, but also something else.

The other day, special plates issued by the prison were suddenly taken away from the special contingent in Colorado - without any explanation. On August 1, two years after the Colorado Department of Penitentiary (Colorado Department of Corrections, CDOC) launched its extremely popular program, under which every prisoner received an iPad-like device “as a gift”, the initiative was abruptly and unexpectedly curtailed; in total, about 18,000 copies were seized, previously distributed among inmates in prisons across the state. An unnamed source told Denver Post that this was due to "unforeseen security problems."

However, it soon became clear that according to the AP messageless than a week before the state of Colorado confiscated the tablets, a group of 364 prisoners in Idaho used a “hole” in the protection of the devices and transferred about $ 225,000 to their accounts. Another source in the Idaho Penitentiary Department told The Outline that after that, members of the group were accused of “class B disciplinary offenses” - acts fraught with transfer from lightweight correctional institutions to where the security regime is average. (The CDOC stated that this was in no way related to each other, and refused to explain what kind of “security problems” confiscated).

Since 2016, providers of telecommunications services in prisons like JPay and Global Tel Link have distributed thousands of “free” tablets to prisoners in several states, including New York, Florida, Missouri, Indiana, Connecticut and Georgia. For a long time, this step was positioned as a way to allow those deprived of their freedom to get an education, prepare for returning to the labor market after the end of their term, and communicate with their relatives; However, economic motives are above all behind the above-described confusing situation - and in many cases, a good undertaking has become nothing more than a factory for siphoning money for a whole chain of stakeholders, from authorities to distributors.

The bottom line was that thanks to the tablets, each company received its own online platform, something like a hybrid of iTunes, Venmo and Gmail, which allowed convicts to exchange email, organize video chats, receive money transfers, and also download movies, TV shows and music Most devices did not have access to the Internet; however, in some states, prisoners were allowed to visit online libraries and news sites. And despite the fact that usually tablets are configured for a particular company, sometimes they even run across pre-installed operating systems - like Google Nexus 7 .

Colorado became the first state in which the “free tablets” program was launched in 2016. When it all began, JPay's sentences looked like pure mercy, they say, prisoners would get a way to contact the outside world; Yes, the prisons agreed that the devices “improve the behavior of the special contingent” and, consequently, the situation in the institution is calmer. Plus, it was supposed to have educational programs and connection to online libraries among the preinstalled software, and all this will be available for free . With such estimates it was difficult to argue.

However, soon the prisoners and their families found that the cost of the declared services, to put it mildly, does not correspond to the promises. “It is extremely erroneous to say that it is“ free of charge, ”says Stephen Racher, a prison communications research system lawyer and volunteer at the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI),“ I found out that in many places the device is kind of given out for free, but as soon as you want to use some kind of service, you have to pay, and the prices are such that you have eyes on your forehead, especially for those who receive $ 0.4-2 per day. ”

For example, in New York JPay - already claiming the title of "prison Apple" - by February 2018 distributed 52,000 tablets. And, according to the company's internal documents, by 2022, she is going to recapture all expenses and earn more than that about 9 million dollars of profit. And all because even basic services for prisoners are not free.

For a transfer, a prisoner of $ 20 will have to pay a JPay commission of $ 4.15. Send an email - 35s, with a photo - twice as much, with a video - four times as much. One music track is $ 2.5, and an album in an inexplicable way can cost $ 46. Want to video chat with family? $ 18 per hour . And prices may vary depending on the season; so, WIRED wrote that on Mother's Day, when prisoners are even more eager to communicate with relatives, the e-mail is no longer 35s, but 47.

Stephen Racher: “The cost of services is much higher than the market, and the formation of the price list is simply extortionate, purely for the sake of profit. But usually there is also a fee that the family members of the prisoner will pay to deposit money into his account in the prison shop. Such a system is like a predatory beast. "

According to PPI , by January 2017, only on fees for the transfer, companies like JPay received about $ 99.2 million. The average fee was about 10 percent of the amount transferred. All this was pumped out of the wallets of prisoners, whose work is estimated at an average of $ 0.92 per hour , and of their families, who are usually quite poor . On condition of anonymity, some of the relatives of the prisoners told The Outlinethat about 25 percent of his monthly income goes to phone calls, video chats, and digital goods like games in a prison shop.

JPay is owned by Securus, a conglomerate of technology companies related to correctional institutions, scandalous thanks to the software for tracking cell phones across the United States - and the “holes” in it that made every American available to hackers in May 2018 . (Securus, managed by billionaire Tom Gors, owner of Detroit Pistons, in November 2017 was estimated by him at 1.5 billion dollars)

Securus' main competitor is Global Tel Link (GTL), a powerful telecommunications company, mostly familiar to the listeners of the Serial podcast ("This is a prepaid call from Global Tel Link from ...."). If recent estimates are correct, Securus and GTL for two control where -So 84 per cent . of the telecommunications market in prisons these organizations are responsible for the cannibalistic rates for telephony and in some states of the 25-minute call can cost up to $ 15 and is in their hands the majority of the prison devices..

Companies like JPay and GTL often sign contracts with the entire state prison system, and therefore prisoners do not have much choice in which devices to use. In addition, many states receive a certain share of the financial flow generated by the tablets, so they tend to choose the office with the maximum price tags for services: the more money the provider receives, the more the correctional institutions will fall.

Prisons account for anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the amount they earn from emails. Say, the “free tablets” program presented by GTL last year in Indiana is expected to “exhaust” about $ 6.5 million - with the corresponding state share of $ 750,000 per year. And Securus, meanwhile, paid the prisonscommissions of 1.3 billion over the past 10 years (taking into account the "flatbed" programs, including paid phone calls).

According to unconfirmed information, the companies receive the money they receive in exchange for political preferences: the Attorney General of Mississippi accused the GTL of bribing with the help of the commission of the chief inspector of the state penitentiary system to sign better contracts with the provider (GTL earned about $ 2.5 million in August 2017 of the year).

Even honestly, free services offered in prisons, such as online libraries and tutorials, have come under fire. Many institutions disposed ofpaper books on the law, but the online resources that came to replace them were often characterized by the lack of data required by the prisoner, according to an investigation by The Crime Report . In addition, the services available on the tablets did not work so often that it was difficult to calculate how many times the persons deprived of their liberty turned out to be unable to obtain information on legislation.

They also spoke about training programs in a similar - and negative - way. Brian Hill, CEO Edovo, a startup competing with JPay and GTL for the right to provide prisoners with educational software, said that the software of competitors is not very well organized: “Well, the truth is, there are PDFs and video clips, all the content is collected from pine. And by and large, they don't care. They are healthy, bulky and do not want to bother. "

Tablet Edovo. Image source: Edovo

Some telecommunications companies have presented tablets to prisons solely as a way to further investigate the crimes of prisoners. As, for example, the 2013 report of Telmate reads : “The more prisoners communicate, the sooner he or she will spill the word about their affairs.”

GTL, on the other hand, reserved the right to use personal data of prisoners for “any business or advertising purposes”, as Securus believes that their clients “do not expect privacy”; as PPI notes , “Correctional institutions have the right to provide, transfer or sell basic and additional information to third parties”. Another company, Smart Communications, does not have any provisions regarding the handling of personal data, except for a small clause about "no credit card data will be shared."

And interference in private space is by no means hypothetical: in July 2018, Securus was sued for recording a private conversation between a convicted person and a lawyer, and transferring this record to the prosecutor, which is interference with the lawyer-client relationship.

Of course, many people behind bars are grateful that using tablets made it easier to keep in touch with the outside world - this is confirmed by those relatives of prisoners who spoke with The Outline. Perhaps, among the future reformers of the established order, there will still be those who will serve these needs without imposing exorbitant duties and assigning their data, since these people are literally “no place to go from here.” After all, the non-free “free” prison system has been regularly making money on the work of prisoners for a long time.

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