The New York state prison where Steven is incarcerated hasn't been the same since the tablets arrived.
Over the last year, the prison technology company JPay has parachuted into prisons across the state with a stunning pitch: giving every inmate one of its tablets — which usually cost $69.99 — free of charge.
This past September, when JPay brought its program to Steven’s prison, inmates lined up to receive them. JPay framed its program as a way to bring "necessary resources to enhance the rehabilitation process," and there didn't seem to be a downside. “Guys were walking down the blocks with their heads down looking at their tablets and bumping into each other,” Steven’s wife, Michelle, told The Outline. “They were so excited.” (Steven and Michelle are pseudonyms to protect the couple's identity.)
Steven, who has been incarcerated for 30 years, was thrilled. He could download thousands of books, music, games, and movies from JPay's online marketplace — a massive technological acceleration in a prison where inmates still used cassette tapes for entertainment. (The tablets, which run on Android, are engineered so that social networking sites cannot be downloaded and email is heavily filtered, but that has not stopped them from being hacked.)
Then Steven noticed the prices. On JPay, a single song can cost as much as $2.50, and a complete album might be listed at $46, according to state records. Sending one email costs $.35 — double that to attach a photo, quadruple to attach a video. Even more upsetting, public domain books and games that are free to the rest of the world came with a price tag on JPay.
While JPay passes off its free tablet campaign as charity, the company expects to earn back the cost of those tablets plus an additional $9 million in profit by 2022, in part by making a population that already earns just $.10 to $1.14 an hour pay for otherwise free content. And JPay is charging its users astronomically more than a retailer outside prison walls would.
On JPay, a single song can cost as much as $2.50, and a complete album might be listed at $46.
Watchdog groups like the Prison Policy Initiative caught the high prices embedded in the JPay contract almost immediately. They knew to be wary. JPay's parent company, Securus Technologies, has received relentless criticism for the high prices it imposes on prison phone calls, an industry over which it boasts a virtual monopoly. It is also notorious for surveilling private phone calls, and its approach to the free tablets, which Reuters confirmed would not allow for confidential communication, proved no different.
For people incarcerated in New York state, though, it wasn't supposed to happen like this. In an initial memo, JPay said that at least a portion of its books and games would be made free. But when Steven first received his tablet, everything had a price.
“When he saw the prices were $.99, he said, ‘Hey, I thought some of the books were supposed to be free,’” said Michelle.
JPay was charging $.99 for public domain ebooks like Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Negro, and several Shakespeare plays. Several of these ebooks bore references to Project Gutenberg, a database that digitizes public domain books in an effort to make reading free and accessible. Project Gutenberg told The Outline that it does not have a licensing deal with JPay and that it is investigating whether or not the tech company violated its policy.
There is no reason for JPay to charge the incarcerated more beyond sheer profit motive, according to Katy Ryan, a professor at West Virginia University who has been tracking tablet programs in West Virginia. “If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you. If you want to re-read a book, you will pay the entire cost again," she told The Outline. "This is about generating revenue for the state and profit for the industry.”
Since The Outline started reporting this article in late October, JPay abruptly switched course. In an email to New York users on November 5, JPay wrote, “We have chosen to make ebooks FREE so all incarcerated individuals can access the titles they desire to read,” adding, “We will not be issuing credits for previously purchased book titles.”
There is no reason for JPay to charge the incarcerated more beyond sheer profit motive.
Yet JPay is still charging several dollars for dozens of video games that are available for free outside of New York prisons. Bubble Blitz, for instance, is free on the App Store but $6.99 on JPay’s marketplace; another free game, 2048 Mania, is $4.99 on JPay.
Reached for comment, the developer Fishing Cactus, whose game Chicken Town is free on Google Play but $6.99 on JPay, noted that the two versions are slightly different. The Google Play version relies on banner ads; the JPay version does not. “Internet connection is required to serve ads,” the spokesperson said. Within prisons, JPay tablets lack internet access. “This is mainly why we changed the model.” Still, he added, “The final price tag decision lies on JPay’s side.”
JPay is not the only prison-tech company guilty of charging incarcerated people for otherwise free products. Last year, the Prison Policy Initiative noted that GTL — the maker of a rival tablet used in U.S. prisons — “lifted directly from the free online library at Project Gutenberg” for many of the eBooks on its tablets. (Neither GTL nor JPay would comment on the record.)
In West Virginia, meanwhile, GTL has begun charging by the minute for its eBooks. Initially, it set a price point of five cents per reading minute; after criticism, it dropped the price to three cents per minute.
There is little recourse for the incarcerated. As these tablets roll out across the U.S., prisons have increasingly replaced free physical libraries with paid ebooks. Inmates that don’t want to be charged by the minute — or be charged to read a public domain book, period — don't have an option. Even Steven, who has lost trust in JPay, is buying off of its marketplace. He has already downloaded an assortment of books and two games. So long as he wants access to personal entertainment, he doesn't have any other option.