THERE, UNDER FLUORESCENT lights, she scanned rows of brightly colored birthday cards to pick out the perfect greeting for her son—let’s call him Tim—who is imprisoned more than 100 miles from his mother’s home just outside New Orleans. The card she settled on was dark brown with trees and a birthday message that read, “For the best son in the world.”
Tim was in his 10th year of a 30-year prison sentence for an armed robbery he committed at age 17; he would not be able to see, let alone sit under or touch, a tree for the next 20 years. (Citing safety concerns, Jones asked that her son’s name not be used.) After Jones, her daughter, and her three grandchildren signed the card, she mailed it off, happy that Tim would know that his family was thinking of him.
Days later, the card was returned. Puzzled, she called the prison where she learned the facility had instituted a prohibition on greeting cards. If she wanted to send a card, a prison official told her, Jones would have to pass along her greeting electronically using JPay, a company bringing email into prison systems across the nation.
Prisons are notoriously low-tech places. But urged on by privately owned companies, like JPay, facilities across the country are adding e-messaging, a rudimentary form of email that remains disconnected from the larger web. Nearly half of all state prison systems now have some form of e-messaging: JPay’s services are available to prisoners in 20 states, including Louisiana.
In the outside world there are numerous companies offering free email accounts—Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Mail.com—but inside prisons companies charge a fee, a token JPay calls a “stamp,” to send each message. Each “stamp” covers only one page of writing. Want to send photos of a nephew’s graduation, a niece’s prom dress or a new baby? Each picture costs an additional stamp. A short video clip? That’ll be three stamps. With the postal service, stamp prices are fixed, but JPay’s stamp prices fluctuate. Shortly before Mother’s Day, for instance, a stamp cost 35 cents; the price rose to 47 cents the following week. For a few hundred dollars, prisoners can skip kiosk lines by buying a tablet—a relatively expensive purchase that tends to lock them into JPay’s services.
Inside prisons, e-messaging companies are quietly building a money-making machine virtually unhindered by competition—a monopoly that would be intolerable in the outside world. It’s based in a simple formula: Whatever it costs to send a message, prisoners and their loved ones will find a way to pay it. And, the more ways prisoners are cut off from communicating with their families, the better it is for business. Which means that stamp by stamp, companies like JPay—and the prisons that accept a commission with each message— are profiting from isolation of one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. And, with prisoners typically earning 20 cents to 95 cents an hour in jobs behind bars, the cost of keeping in touch most likely falls to family members and friends.
This year, Jones decided against choosing from the 24 electronic birthday card designs that JPay offers. Instead, she waited for her son to call, paying 21 cents a minute to JPay’s parent company Securus, which provides phone services to Louisiana’s prisons. “I just talked to him on the phone and cried,” she says.
JPay began in 2002 as a prison money-wiring service, offering a quicker alternative for families who wanted to mail a money order to incarcerated loved ones. The expediency came with a price: The fees for each transaction could be as high as $11.95. When JPay launched its e-messaging services in 2004, it pitched it as a way of fostering closer relationships between prisoners and the outside world. “Part of JPay’s mission is to provide technology…[that] empowers those individuals with access to educational tools and assists in their overall rehabilitation process,” says Jade Trombetta, JPay’s senior manager of brand marketing and social media. She declined to explain the reasoning behind JPay’s prices or price fluctuations. “We have nothing more to say on the matter,” she told WIRED.
At the time, the company boasted contracts with 21 state correctional agencies, along with “numerous jails and private prisons.” It already served more than 1.2 million people behind bars. That year, according to a document obtained by the Huffington Post, JPay reported a revenue of $30.4 million; three years later, its revenue had more than doubled to $70.4 million.
On the screen, however, JPay’s technology hardly evokes a sleek startup. Instead, it seems more like a flashback to the mid-1990s. To send a message, incarcerated people stand in line for one of several kiosks dedicated to e-messaging and use a rudimentary form of plain text to compose their messages. Once logged in, a sidebar offers the options of composing a new message, clicking on a message to read its contents, and scanning already-sent messages. The sidebar also contains a count of how many more messages a person is able to send—based on the number of credits they’ve purchased—and an option to purchase more.
Prison commissaries have always turned a small profit by selling paper, envelopes, and stamps. But with few recurring costs, e-messaging is a much more lucrative enterprise—and not just for JPay. In 2014, more than14.2 million e-messages were sent over the service. With many prisons reaping a roughly 5-cent commission per message, prison systems that use JPay stand to collect $710,000 on e-messages alone. As use of e-messaging increases, these numbers stand to balloon. In Michigan, for example, imprisoned users send 800,000 to one million messages through JPay each month.
Prisoner advocates say that services providing email services to correctional facilities are simply following the same price-gouging formula. “It doesn’t cost that much to send an email,” says Peter Wagner, director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Though e-messaging companies compare their business to postage stamps, in reality traditional mail—in which a person can send several photos or five pieces of paper for a single set price—is a much better deal. “This is a company that is not transparent about its pricing,” Wagner says. “Because facilities are not paying the bill, they have no incentive to worry about it.” In fact, because they share in the revenue, the facilities have an incentive to maximize the use of such services. (In some states, such as Michigan, these commissions go to a prisoner benefit fund, which pays for items such as recreation equipment.)
In some states, JPay is sweetening the deal by offering free tablets that allow prisoners to skip kiosk lines—and encourage the use of its product. In Missouri, the company is scheduled to give each of the state’s more than 33,000 prisoners their own tablet. In February, it announced it will do the same for New York state’s 51,000 prisoners. “The vendor charges fees to inmate and inmate family/friends for using the services,” reads the contract between the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and JPay. From the New York partnership alone, the company expects to reap $8.8 million over the next five years.
And, while all prisons still allow some form of written correspondence, in several states, the advent of e-messaging has been coupled with greater restrictions on regular mail.
In April 2017, Indiana’s Department of Corrections passed new regulations making not only greeting cards, but also colorful envelopes, computer printouts, and even typed sheets of paper verboten. The reasoning, Basinger says, is an uptick in narcotics and synthetic narcotics, such as fentanyl, which can be soaked into colorful paper. To prevent drugs coming through the mail, prisons now allow only handwritten letters on white lined paper, “like every student in the country uses,” Basinger says, which are easy to monitor and scan for illicit materials.
But the side effect of these new restrictions is a greater reliance on JPay. For Nicole, who was recently paroled from an Indiana prison and asked asked that her last name not be used, these restrictions effectively cut off communication with her aunt. In previous years, her aunt sent her cards and letters on colorful stationery for her birthday, Christmas, and any time Nicole completed a prison program. Nicole kept each and every one them.
With the new mail restrictions, communication dwindled. Nicole’s aunt, who is 87, doesn’t own a computer. And in Indiana, where Nicole is incarcerated, JPay kiosks are in the prison’s dayrooms—the communal area of each housing unit where women use the microwave, watch one of two televisions, stand in line for the telephones, and socialize. Often, Nicole explains, the prison dayroom is like “trying to get in and out of a mall at Christmastime.” You also have people behind you interrupting to see who’s next,” she says. “You’ll be interrupted multiple times.” Arguments and fights often broke out about whose turn was next or if someone allowed a friend to cut the line.
In 13 states—including, soon, Indiana—an imprisoned person can avoid the headaches of the communal kiosk by buying a tablet, but again, there’s a price, which varies state by state. In California, for instance, where hourly prison wages range from 8 to 95 cents, a tablet costs $160. That price does not include music, games, podcasts, or e-books, all of which must be bought separately. In Michigan, the newly introduced JP5 costs $40 (with $10 going to the prisoner benefit fund). Currently, just under 27,000 of the state’s nearly 40,000 prisoners have these players.
In some states, the rise of JPay has brought a wave of activism, designed to block increasingly restrictive mail policies. In 2017, Charles Sweeney and Anthony Delarosa, currently imprisoned in Indiana, filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections challenging mail restrictions as violations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In May 2018, a federal judge ruled that they could not only proceed but certified their suit as a class-action, meaning that they are now suing on behalf of the state’s nearly 26,000 prisoners.
These actions can’t come quickly enough for Jones. In February, Jones went to her mother’s house in New Orleans for her family’s annual Mardi Gras barbecue. As they do at every get-together, they snapped picture after picture, but Jones could only afford to send her son a few. ‘Where are the rest of the kids at?’ Tim asked her after receiving her message. But Jones, who spends about $40 a month on JPay stamps, could not afford to send photos of her cousins’ children.
Still, she’s grateful for what she can afford. To buy her son a tablet, Jones, who works part-time and earns $600 every two weeks, put off paying that month’s electric bill. She wonders what other, less fortunate families do.