By Seth Ogilvie
This summer, Idaho inmates picked up their prison-issued tablets and, as if they were sitting on a couch in their living room surfing Amazon, placed items in their shopping carts. Shopping on tablets is something non-incarcerated people regularly do. The similarity in the shopping in prison and outside, however, is also a reminder that beneath the surface of those tablets, the process is vastly different.
Idaho prisoners are allowed to purchase JP5 tablets from the JPAY company. They look like iPads, and they can be used to send email, download songs, games and — as the JPAY company likes to highlight in their state contracts — they can be used for education.
That’s about where the similarities end. These aren’t iPads, and the JPAY commissary isn’t the Amazon emporium. Prisoners can’t get on iTunes or watch videos on Youtube. Sending an email costs 47 cents, and music costs as much as $3.50 in virtual money. These are services people outside prison cells take for granted.
These prices also have to be put into perspective. Prisoners in Idaho’s correctional institutions receive virtual money that “runs from 10 cents an hour for low-skill jobs to 30 cents an hour for high-skill jobs,” according to the Idaho Department of Corrections website. That could mean after a 40 hour work week, a low skilled prison worker could send nine emails or download one song.
Friends and family are also allowed to fill JPAY accounts with virtual money, but they get no deal on the services. That means they, too, are stuck paying the high price tag.
In Idaho prisons, there is no competition for prices. JPAY has the monopoly, and they want to keep it that way. Documents obtained by the Prison Policy Initiative show a business strategy focused on cutting down competition and controlling prices.
In 2015, Securus, a prison-focused technology company, acquired JPAY. The merger allowed them to provide almost all technology needs for an individual prison or state, and since they are the sole provider of services, they can set the price at virtually any level as long as the corrections department they are contracting with will allow it.
The only people likely to complain about the high prices would be the prisoners and their families, groups that seldom get much sympathy from legislators and the public. The high rates can also be perceived as a punitive measure by citizens outside of prison — “You did the crime, now time to pay the price.”
This summer, prisoners at Idaho correctional facilities found a workaround. Some people called it a hack, some called it a glitch, but to 363 Idaho inmates, it was a heck of a deal.
Inmates discovered that if items were added to their shopping carts either through tablets or kiosks, then those items were deleted, their accounts were credited with the cost.
“JPAY was not hacked. Kiosks were not breached. Tablets were not breached.” Julie McKay told the Idaho Board of Corrections in early August.
Inmates, according to the DOC, credited their accounts with $224,772 in virtual money, with about 50 people exceeding $1,000 and one person getting close $10,000.
“On the 23rd of July, the system was patched,” McKay told the DOC board earlier this month.
The response from social media highlighted several aspects of the system. The glitch brought frustrations about high prices, corporate oversight and prison labor to twitter.
Tweets supporting the prisoners came rolling in. The narrative on social media took on a Robin Hood-type quality. JPAY has contracts with 20 states. They are the exclusive provider and set the prices in many places outside of Idaho.
For many on Twitter, the prisoners were finally getting one over on a company that has got one over on the prisoners for years.
IDOC and JPAY saw it differently. They saw the actions as theft, even if the theft was virtual and those who participated received disciplinary reports and were charged by JPAY for items purchased.
Those that were rooting for the prisoners, however, can take a little solace in the fact that they were able to keep the content they purchased, according to Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray.
Let’s hope at least one inmate downloaded Merle Haggard’s “I Made the Prison Band” it would serve as a reminder that there are other ways to hear music in prison. The digitally remastered song cost less than half the JPAY rate at $1.29 on Amazon.