Companies like Securus (including their subsidiary JPay) and Global Tel Link (GTL) have long been front runners in providing banking and communication services to prisons. They got into the tablet space in the early 2010s, allowing people in prison to email loved ones, listen to music, play games, and access educational materials on personal devices, which provided greater flexibility and privacy. Despite some positive reactions to the presence of tablets in prisons, many also express concerns about private companies operating in a largely unregulated market, which has resulted in both harm and uncertainty for consumers.
Many states have partnered with such companies to run pilot programs which provide prisoners with tablets for free (however, in some states, prisoners have been paying up to $147 for a tablet). Win-win-win, right? It is certainly a win for the companies. The tablets are about the only things that are free. These companies’ “generous” foot in the door tactics lead to enormous profits as a result of purchases made on the tablets. While many see the benefits of providing tablets in prisons, the race to enter the market combined with a lack of regulation is a recipe for harm to both prisoners and prison administration.
Prisons see a lot of benefit to introducing tablets into their facilities, including less conflict among prisoners, as well as—sometimes—a cut of the profits from tablet-related sales. But some facilities have found themselves unprepared to handle the technology on such a large scale. This year, Idaho prison officials discovered that over 300 prisoners hacked JPay’s system and increased their account credits by nearly $225,000. Colorado recently went so far as to confiscate all prisoners’ tablets because of “unforeseen security issues.” And in South Dakota, prison administrators relied on the capability of the tablets for prisoners to do legal research and cut back on provisions of other legal aid such as real-life paralegals and a physical law library. But software malfunctions left prisoners without adequate support. The debacle has resulted in two lawsuits being filed this year.
It comes as no surprise that advocates have criticized private companies for offering free tablets while turning around and charging above market rates for individual digital purchases and monthly subscriptions. Most off-putting is the fact that both prisoners and loved ones on the outside must pay for a “stamp” for each page of an email sent (for example, in Michigan, JPay charges $0.25 per email page, and per picture).
These same companies are also at the center of the fight over regulation of phone call rates. The fight to regulate the price of phone calls has been difficult for advocates, to say the least. Last year, a court struck down regulations that capped the cost of phone calls after Ajit Pai, President Trump’s appointment as chair of the F.C.C., said the agency would not defend the Obama-era regulations. The decision comes after a decades-long battle with service providers that continues to this day, and has garnered bipartisan support for stricter regulations on these prices.
While the tablet programs have certainly had a few critics, most of the heat has fallen on the service companies and the prisons that negotiate contracts with them. A few cents for an electronic “stamp” may not seem like a lot, but for those who survive on the average prison wage, it may mean foregoing communication with your support system, which is crucial to positive outcomes for prisoners. The economic barrier to communication is even greater in states where prisoners must purchase their own tablet. Even more disturbing, albeit less common, are reports of prions implementing in-person visitation restrictions as opposed to using video visitation as a supplement. The decision seems premature given the uncertainty over whether the software will be both affordable and effective for all prisoners.
The quick move of private companies to capitalize on a captive audience for their tablets, apps, and electronic services raises concerns for both prisoners and prison administration. If the fight over phone call rates is any indication of how the government will treat tablet purchases, regulation may not bring relief for some time, if ever. Prisoners’ wallets may be in the hands of prison administrators, who have the power to insist on fairer, and more stable, contracts with service providers. The availability of tablets in prisons began as a hopeful step in the right direction towards providing prisoners with the tools they need to increase engagement, education, and personal connections. However, it is clear that the system remains riddled with one-sided contracts, security concerns, and high prices for services that cast a shadow over the potential benefits of the system.*
*Solana Gillis is an associate editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.