Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

A Captive Market

As if locking up mass numbers of people in cages weren’t depraved enough, jails and prisons around the country are now charging prisoners exorbitant fees to read, listen to music, and speak to their family and friends. It’s a gross violation and exploitation of prisoners’ basic rights to enjoy culture and connect with other humans.

An inmate at the Cook County Jail competes in a chess tournament online on May 17, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

How much does a copy of your favorite book cost to read by the minute? Maybe you bought it for $10 at the local used bookstore and read a page every three minutes. It seems odd to calculate, but your cost comes out to a small fraction of a penny per minute.

It’s not odd for inmates across the United States, however. Jails and public prisons have teamed up with prison-services firms to charge prisoners to read and learn.

In West Virginia, for example, the company GTL (formerly Global Telcoin, Inc.) recently began providing iPad-like devices to ten prisons in the state. The devices themselves are free and so are the books, which are from Project Gutenberg, an online provider of more than sixty thousand public domain texts. But inmates are charged $0.05 per minute (currently discounted to $0.03) to read the “free” books. At three minutes per page for a three-hundred-page book, that’s $45, as long as they don’t stop to admire an elegant turn of phrase or ponder a passage.

Worse, the devices are not just e-readers, but fully functioning tablets. If an inmate has enough money, the tablets have music, email, SMS, phone, and video capabilities. If a West Virginia inmate wants to video call a loved one, it will cost $0.25 per minute, or $15 an hour.

Most inmates in state and federal prisons are not employed. If a West Virginia inmate does work, they will earn as little as $0.04 an hour, meaning they will have to work 375 hours to pay for that call. If the inmate is unemployed and doesn’t have savings, their loved ones shoulder the financial burden.

The friends and family members of inmates are ensnared in a payment scheme that collectively punishes the prisoners, who are disproportionately black and brown, while enriching corporations and states. This is a swindle of the highest order.

Although media usage has become highly commodified in the outside world, people can speak to each other in person free of charge, and they can read for something close to that. Prisoners, on the other hand, are quite literally a captive market. They are often compelled beyond their will to pay exorbitant fees to think, listen, or maintain personal relationships with people on the outside. For prisoners, the basic things that make us human are being exploited for profit.

The more an inmate can speak with their loved ones, the better. As long as visitation is “high-quality,” frequent speaking time can reduce prison violence, help prisoners maintain cherished relationships, and facilitate a smooth transition into the world after release. Importantly, it can contribute to “break[ing] the intergenerational cycle of incarceration,” which is a crucial step toward the bigger goal of diverting resources to working-class communities, especially of color, and away from the largest prison system in the world. More importantly, speaking with loved ones, reading, and listening to music are not luxuries — they are genuine needs to which all humans have rights.

States and prison-services firms see something else in all this: easy and massive profits. Eighty percent of the prison-services market, including communications technology and other services, is dominated by three firms, Securus Technologies, GTL, and ICSolutions, according to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative. A single subsidiary of Securus boasts that its services are used by “more than 1.9 million inmates and released offenders in thirty-four states,” or the vast majority of the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States.

In at least one Ohio state prison, a company called JPay charges prisoners $140 to buy a tablet. Inmates pay $10 for a thirty-minute video call. Elsewhere, game applications like e-solitaire, which are free to people on the outside, cost $7.99.

In nine states around the nation, prison profiteers give the devices to institutions free of charge. But like in West Virginia, they are only free to the government and taxpayers. GTL says the tablets have “both free and premium content.” Free content usually refers to software like a digital law library or an electronic grievance system. Any application that a typical inmate might want to use regularly is monetized.

Sometimes prisoners report losing purchases made on the tablets for no reason, like when Florida inmates lost $11 million worth of song downloads after the state switched contractors. That’s 20 million labor hours at best, because Florida prison laborers are paid a maximum of $0.55 an hour. Some are paid $0 per hour.

If those prisoners did repurchase even a fraction of their music, it was a boon to prison firms and Florida alike, because the state earns a percentage of all transactions made on the tablets. This sort of kickback is standard practice in “the prison retail space,” as Bertram called it. The state of Ohio, for instance, makes roughly $1.3 million dollars each year in kickbacks from JPay. JPay itself estimated that a five-year contract with New York prisons would yield $9 million in profit.

If someone wants to speak to an incarcerated loved one over a Skype-like video call, the call can be dehumanizing and dysfunctional. Take Guardian journalist Shannon Sims’s description of one such interaction:

[A woman’s] face lights up and then slowly fades as she realizes [her incarcerated boyfriend] can’t hear her. She fiddles with her headphones, waves, tries gesturing at him, but ultimately, he never can hear her voice. The two end up simply giggling at the screen image of each other for the remainder of the time.

Others have given firsthand reports of the shoddy and expensive technology, too. In Ars Technica, Timothy B. Lee wrote that

The call cost 19 cents per minute and was noticeably worse than a FaceTime or Skype call. It was grainy and jerky, periodically freezing up altogether . . . . The software required my face to stay centered in the video frame. If my face left the frame, the video went dark — this is apparently a measure to prevent callers from flashing breasts or other body parts.

Prisoners live in utter privation of basic human rights, but one always remains: the right to have their privation profitized. What other option is there?

“Subjected to isolation, boredom, and torture, you don’t have a choice of whether to avail yourself of some activity that could be fulfilling to you,” said Bertram. “What we can see is that families and loved ones of incarcerated people end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars just to support their loved ones’ fulfillment and emotional survival on the inside.”

This exploitation is sanctioned by the Supreme Court, which asserted in a 2003 case that prison administrators are uniquely capable of determining when and whether inmates get visitation. “They bear a significant responsibility for defining the legitimate goals of a corrections system and for determining the most appropriate means to accomplish them,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority.

But this is a considerable conflict of interest, since prison administrators themselves determine whether and with whom they sign public-private contracts, the very deals that shift prison costs onto the prisoner-cum-consumer and increase states’ assets.

In jails, the monetization of prisoners’ craving for social connection and mental stimulation is the most extreme and exploitative. While no state or federal prison has banned in-person visitations after implementing some form of virtual visitation, 375 jails have. (It is difficult to determine the exact figure, Bertram told me, because these facilities tend to operate outside public scrutiny. The Prison Policy Initiative “sets up news alerts” to track the trend, but no longer monitors it formally.)

The video calls in jails, which cost up to $1.50 a minute, overwhelmingly supplant traditional visits. Of the jails that introduce video calling, 74 percent eliminate in-person visits outright. The elimination of such visits was required outright by one of the biggest prison-services firms, Securus, until it faced widespread backlash from activists and advocates.

This bleak exploitation in jails is deeply racialized. In 2016, fully 65 percent of jail detainees had not even gone to trial. Since people of color are more likely to be denied bail and less likely to be able to afford it, the state and private interests are exploiting inmates who are not just disproportionately poor and of color, but also overwhelmingly innocent, according to the justice system itself.

Under the aegis of the state, prison-services firms offer technology that could theoretically be beneficial to inmates and ultimately break cycles of incarceration. But this runs counter to corporate and state interests: reducing any population of consumers, after all, is not a sustainable business model.