Private Prisons Profit from 21st Century Letters

In Captive Audience: How Companies Make Millions Charging Prisoners to Send an Email, WIRED Magazine explores how private prisons profit from the simple act of communication with loved ones.

ON THE SURFACE, e-messaging seems like an easy and efficient way for families to keep in touch—a quicker 21st century version of pen-and-paper mail. Companies like JPay cover the price of installing the systems; prisons pay nothing. And, the argument goes, closer family connections are a win-win for prisons and inmates. “Maintaining a positive network of support is really important to their future success when they rejoin the community,” says Holly Kramer, a communications representative for the Michigan Department of Corrections, which has contracted with JPay since February 2009. “Electronic messaging can help facilitate that.”

In the outside world there are numerous companies offering free email accounts—Gmail, Yahoo Mail,—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.

Read on for much more.