This article was published in partnership with The Appeal.
In early March 2020, as COVID-19 infections started to spread in U.S. jails and prisons, Roger was serving out the final months of a fifteen-year sentence in Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ulster County, about one hundred miles north of New York City. By April 1, movement in the facility was restricted, recreation areas were closed, and visitations and educational programs were suspended. For several months, Roger recounted, “we were literally locked in our cells, as if we were in solitary confinement.”
Under such circumstances, it felt like a blessing that in 2017, New York had signed a contract with JPay, a subsidiary of prison telecommunication giant Securus Technologies, to distribute “mini-tablets” to the prison population. Roger got his in October 2019—at no upfront cost. But there was a predictable caveat: while the tablets gave incarcerated individuals access to email, music, e-books, and even games, all of those services came with hefty price tags. JPay calculated that the profits from the associated fees would outweigh the cost of providing the tablets without charge; in fact, with roughly 50,000 incarcerated people slated to receive tablets in prisons throughout New York, JPay projected a net profit of about $8.8 million by August 2022, according to the state’s department of corrections.
New York wasn’t the only state to roll out a prison tablet program: between 2017 and 2019, at least eleven other states entered into contracts with prison telecom companies such as Securus and GTL. To hear it from corporate spokespeople and corrections officials, the tablets promised hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people across the country access to new forms of communication, information, and entertainment. “We have anticipation and hope to make it a good educational tool,” a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said when a tablet program was introduced in her state.
But in reality, the proliferation of prison tablets feeds into the broader trend of predatory corporations gouging incarcerated people and making billions off a captive market.
Over the past four decades, while the national prison population has swelled to unprecedented levels, corrections systems have provided inadequate funding for programs, services, and essential goods. At the same time, corrections officials have outsourced this spending to private corporations, which have turned prison services into a multibillion-dollar retail industry. Under the current system, incarcerated individuals are forced to purchase extra food, clothing, hygiene, and other goods from external vendors, who charge exorbitant rates for services as simple as phone calls, money transfers, and commissary transactions.
“When you go to jail you think, yeah, I got three meals, I got a shower and everything. [But] it’s not as easy as it sounds,” said Juan, who served nearly a decade in New York state prisons. “Prison is expensive,” he continued. “You need money to live in there.”
With average wages for prison labor stagnating at less than $0.40 per hour, most incarcerated people rely on financial support from friends and family. But these remittances are often a financial burden for the families of the incarcerated. According to a 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report, families spend billions of dollars each year just to cover the costs of phone calls and commissary purchases for their incarcerated loved ones.
The pandemic only compounded that burden. As workers were laid off en masse across the United States in 2020, the stream of money into prisons took a hit. “A lot of people weren’t getting financial support anymore,” said Michael, who was serving the last months of a two-year sentence in Connecticut when correctional facilities went into lockdown. “Their people [outside] were dying or were losing money.”
With commissary accounts drying up and institutions facing their own supply problems, panic spread at the New York prison where Roger was housed. “We were scared,” Roger recounted. “We believed that we were going to die in prison, you know, we’d be locked in there, and that staff would abandon the facilities.”
In the face of this disruption, informal lenders in the prison economy known as “jugglers” started charging double the usual rates. Many institutions imposed strict quotas on commissary purchases. In Fishkill, a medium-security facility in New York’s Hudson Valley, food sales were limited, including staples like pasta, rice, and soups, according to Carlos, who was nearing the end of a ten-year prison sentence when the pandemic hit. Some prisons also stopped or slowed the processing of mail and packages—which often contain food—citing staff shortages.
When families on the outside heard about those dynamics, sending money became an even higher priority. Fred, who was working at a restaurant in Queens when COVID-19 first hit, recounted that not being able to visit his son, who has been incarcerated since 2018, had already caused serious strain. He made a point of matching his usual monthly contributions toward his son’s commissary and phone accounts—even though he was laid off in the very first weeks of the pandemic.
“I didn’t want him to feel abandoned,” Fred said, explaining how he went into debt to continue providing for his son while paying his own bills. In late April 2021, Fred said he still owed over $10,000, mostly to friends and family. Lavern, who lives in Long Island with her daughter, and whose boyfriend has been incarcerated since 2019, said the emotional toll of not being able to see her loved one for months at a time was worsened by the financial strain. At the same time her income went down—she had to give up hours at the nursing home where she worked in order to care for her daughter after schools shut down—the costs of her boyfriend’s phone and commissary shot up. Without in-person visits, their phone calls grew longer and more frequent. Between costs for phone calls, emails, and commissary, Lavern estimated spending over $600 per month to support her boyfriend during the first year of the pandemic.
All of these transactions were made possible by the software, tablets, and drive for profits of the prison telecommunications giants.
JPay made its first foray into prison tablets in 2012, when several facilities began to give incarcerated individuals the option to purchase devices for $140. Running on a modified version of Android, JPay tablets do not have direct access to the web—to download music and videos, or send an email, users have to hook them up to designated “kiosks” inside the prison.
In 2015, JPay was acquired by Securus, a prison telecommunications company that raked in over $114 million dollars in profits in 2014 alone from its phone services in 2,600 prisons and jails across forty-six states and the District of Columbia. Securus’s then-CEO Rick Smith hailed the merger as an opportunity to tap “into the fastest growing segments in corrections: payments, email, and most recently, inmate tablets.”
The acquisition also represented an attempt to diversify at a time when Securus was facing increased scrutiny from federal regulators and prisoners’ rights activists over its phone services. Six months after the JPay acquisition was announced, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap local and long-distance calls from state and federal prisons at eleven cents a minute, while also prohibiting most of the ancillary charges Securus and other companies routinely tacked onto phone bills.
By 2019, it looked like the bet on the “prison iPads” market had already paid off. Between 2017 and 2019, JPay signed lucrative contracts with New York, Connecticut, and Missouri to distribute tablets to their incarcerated populations. GTL, JPay’s main competitor, had secured similar agreements with six more states. By then, both companies had decided to distribute the tablets for free.
Both JPay and GTL charge prisoners at every step of the communication process: In New York, each email sent or received requires a “stamp,” which costs $0.25—twice that if the message exceeds 6,000 characters, or if it includes a picture or card. For four stamps, friends and family can also send thirty-second “video-grams” to loved ones inside.
Music, movies, e-books, and games can also be downloaded on JPay tablets for exorbitant fees. Songs are listed for as much as $2.50 each, and a single album can cost up to $46, according to state records. Renting a movie costs between $2 and $25. Until November 2019, when the company backed down in the face of public pressure, JPay was selling incarcerated individuals in a handful of states e-books sourced from Project Gutenberg, a database of free books.
As expensive as they were to use, tablets quickly became a hot commodity in prison, enticing incarcerated individuals with the promise of new opportunities for entertainment and connecting with loved ones outside. Chris, a self-described “old-head” who served a seven-year sentence in New York, noticed that younger prisoners in particular flocked to the JPay tablets: “They looked like kids in a candy store. They were on their tablets all day long.”
The devices’ appeal grew even stronger once the COVID-19 crisis brought prison life to a halt. “There was no rec, no programs on board,” Roger said. “It was very tense. People just wanted to sit down by themselves and not get in trouble, watch a movie or play a game.”
Between March and December 2020, Roger estimated having spent at least $900, or about $100 per month, on emails to his family and music and movie downloads, up from the roughly $30 per month he’d spent for the same services before the pandemic. And, according to Roger, that was far less than what some of his peers and their families were footing. Other sources corroborated Roger’s observation, saying that tablets became a “necessity” in prison, with some incarcerated people racking up bills as high as $1,000 a month.
This spending surged even as companies like JPay announced promotional offers when prisons went into lockdown. Beginning in April 2020, JPay offered temporarily discounted prices on selected movies and songs; it also established “free-reply Wednesdays,” allowing families to attach one free reply to paid emails sent from jails and prisons. “Most free movies were garbage,” said Darrell, who was at Fishkill when COVID-19 first hit. By the time he came home, in September 2020, he had downloaded hundreds of dollars’ worth of movies and music.
“I felt ashamed of myself,” said Darrell, “because I let them loop me into something that I really didn’t want. But in order for me to stay out of other people’s way, in order for me to make it home, I said, let me do what I gotta do to stay inside my own cube, my own room.”
As Roger explained, “JPay knows that we are a captive consumer base.” Incarcerated people “have no choice,” he added. “If you want it, or you feel you need it for your mental health, you are going to have to buy it from us.”
J-Pay did not respond to requests for comment.
In the neoliberal prison, legal scholar Hadar Aviram writes, the prisoner is increasingly treated not as a “ward of the state” but as a “consumer of institutional services.” This process could now be at a turning point: with the pandemic still ongoing, the shift toward a greater reliance on technology will likely transform the lives of the incarcerated. If prison telecom companies have it their way, tablets will not function as tools for education and rehabilitation—as both companies and correction systems have disingenuously promised—but as another extractive scheme. Incarcerated individuals will be offered substandard services at astronomic prices.
There are already examples of what this sort of “high-tech” prison would look like. Citing the availability of tablets and concerns about contraband, prisons in Pennsylvania, Florida, and other states have replaced physical mail with email and digital copies. Other facilities have already proceeded to replace in-person visits with paid video calls, making tablets the only points of contact between prisoners and their loved ones.
Privatization has long been pitched as a way to ease the pressure on public coffers. For incarcerated people and their families, however, this shift has left them shouldering more of the costs of life’s basic necessities. By squeezing more money out of the incarcerated and their families, companies like JPay and GTL amplify the negative economic impact of imprisonment, and siphon away resources that could be used to support loved ones after incarceration.
Some lawmakers are finally catching on. In July 2018, the New York City Council passed Intro 741, making phone calls from the city’s jails free and prohibiting the city from collecting revenues on phone services. Connecticut followed suit in 2021, becoming the first state to allow all incarcerated individuals a minimum of ninty minutes of free calls each day. “This bill corrects a regressive policy that senselessly indebts families and turns the revolving door of recidivism,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas.
As JPay’s contracts with several states—including New York, Maine, and Indiana—are set to expire this summer, advocates see an opportunity to build upon those victories. The hope, they say, is to create a technology infrastructure designed to serve the needs of incarcerated users, not one engineered to exploit them and their families. “Tablets under non-predatory terms could be a very good thing inside prisons,” said Katy Ryan, the founder of the Appalachian Prison Book Project. But if prison telecommunications companies such as J-Pay are allowed to continue moving in the current direction, there’s no reason to believe these devices will be a positive force.
Editor’s Note: Dissent and The Appeal contacted Securus Technologies for comment on February 10 and followed up several times prior to publication, but the company did not provide a response. After publication, a spokesperson for Securus’s parent company, Aventiv Technologies, contacted Dissent and The Appeal to dispute several claims in the article. In particular, the company noted that emails now cost $0.25 to send in New York, instead of the $0.35 specified in their 2017 contract with NYS DOCCS. The company also said that video calls are not available in New York state. Finally, former CEO Rick Smith left his role in late 2017. We have updated the article to reflect these changes.
Additionally, the company asked Dissent and The Appeal to include a statement defending its business practices. Because the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment before publication, we are declining to print their statement in full. The statement claimed that the company “began an aggressive, multi-year transformation journey in 2019” to address the harms caused by its business practices. Critics of the company, however, have said that despite the company’s rebranding efforts, it has continued to exploit incarcerated people and their families. Last month, Mother Jones reported that the company told investors in 2021 that it was considering charging universities that used the company’s platform to provide prisoner education programs.
Tommaso Bardelli is a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Prison Education Program (PEP).
Ruqaiyah Zarook (@rukizarook) is a graduate student at NYU researching carceral debt.
Derick McCarthy is an undergraduate student at NYU majoring in American Studies.
The authors are members of NYU PEP Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students conducting research on the financial costs of mass incarceration in New York.