Being connected in this digital age of social media and ChatGPT can sometimes be overly complicated for those of us on the inside, especially if you've been "away from society" for the last 20 or 30 years. When Florida Dept. of Corrections inmates first started getting tablets back in 2017, they cost a pretty penny and didn't come with much instruction. You basically had to have the means and the know-how to buy and operate the damn thang, and it was a learning process even then.
When an old-timer asked me to help him create an eight-character password, I jokingly told him to just put in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves… and he actually took me seriously. I knew right then that the upgrade to such technology would take some getting used to—if you could even afford the pricey gadget. Then came the commencement of "Free Loaner Tablets," and all hell broke loose. Or should I say, it was heaven for those with deep pockets and short arms.
Let me explain.
Since as early as 2016, internment telecommunications companies like Global Tel Link, JPAY, and Securus have been issuing thousands of free tablets to comrades in prisons throughout numerous states, starting with Colorado. It has since expanded to such states as Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana, Connecticut, and New York, to name a few. It has even birthed new telecommunications services like Unity.
Companies like JPAY and Securus often sign lucrative contracts with entire state penal systems, and there's usually no inmate liaison involved. Mind you, JPAY is owned by Securus, a conglomerate of prison telecommunications that exposed the mobile data of potentially every American to hackers back in May 2018. Tom Gores, the billionaire owner of the Detroit Pistons, gained possession of Securus in November of 2017 for $1.5 billion.
Promotional sales pitches by professional salespeople have marketed these free tablets as a way for us on the inside to self-educate, prepare for reentry, and better communicate with family and friends. However, the underlying economics behind these "free tablet programs" presents a money-grabbing opportunity for every greedy body with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, from state officials to the distributors themselves.
For instance, the prison industrial complex can pilfer anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the money generated from emails sent by those they incarcerate. By 2014, Securus had disbursed approximately $1.3 billion in commissions to the prison industrial complex over ten years, which includes commissions from non-tablet programs like phone calls. Global Tel Link (GTL) and Securus together share more than 81 percent of the prison industrial complex telecommunication services, not to mention the overwhelming majority of prison tablets.
In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative shared research on communication systems in prisons, reporting that fees related to money transfers alone—for example, a $12.99 service fee to transfer $100 from the outside—produced an estimated $99.2 million in revenue for companies like JPAY. Sending just one email to a loved one out there costs us 39 cents in Florida (but up to 50 cents in Alaska and Arkansas, with the average price throughout the country being between 27 cents and 30 cents). It costs twice that to attach a picture, and fourfold for a videogram.
Here, games can cost upwards of $7.99, movies $5.99, and songs $1.99 each. Some of these prison telecommunication outfits have been accused of using that same money generated in exchange for political favors. The Mississippi attorney general once alleged that GTL tried to bribe the state's main corrections officer with commissions so that he would cut more profitable deals with the company. In the end, GTL settled for something like $2.5 million.
'A modernized, streamlined incarceration experience.' New prison technology surveils life on both sides of the wall.
Privacy violations are not unfathomable, either. Especially here in Florida. In June of 2018, a lawsuit was filed against Securus for recording private dialogues between incarcerated comrades and their lawyers, a direct violation of attorney-client privilege. Some of these companies have even lobbied to prison legislators their sentiment that the more an inmate communicates electronically, the more likely they will self-incriminate. This is exactly what I did when I wrote an email of dissent during the 2018 National Prisoner Strike, which ultimately landed me in Close Management Solitary for 18 months.
As shown, these prison telecommunication companies can finesse their way around laws. For instance, GTL reserves the right to use inmate data for "any business or marketing purpose," while JPAY and Securus expect us to have "no expectation of privacy." Ultimately, "correctional facilities can distribute, transfer, or even sell content and/or related information to other parties," notes the Prison Policy Initiative.
In retrospect, I cannot deny the fact that tablets and the Free Tablet Program in general have given us on the inside a better and more convenient way to connect with those on the outside. It has also improved overall compound behavior and morale because no inmate wants to lose their beloved tablet over a disciplinary infraction, thus creating a safer environment for staff and inmates alike.
Being able to email at your heart's content, video chat, and download select music, games, movies, and TV shows gives us some sort of freedom. Unfortunately, all of the above costs money, so it would be incorrect to call it freedom. Loved ones of inmates, who tend to be much poorer than average "law-abiding" families, have to dish out as much as 25 percent of their monthly income for phone calls, emails, and digital media content for their incarcerated family and friends.
My hope is that present and future telecommunication services can not only continue to connect us to the outside world, but discontinue these excessive fees and halt the domination of our data. After all, free is not really free in a system that has historically profited from inmates and their families.