Skip to main content

Why do prison emails cost so much?

Barbed wire and loudspeakers on the edge of a prison.

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.


An anonymous reader asks:

‌Why do emails in jail cost 50 cents each?

Since around 2016, US inmates in 43 state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have been able to send electronic messages of a sort. Recipients must be whitelisted and all messages are screened. The upper-bound cost is around 50 cents; the average is now around 30 cents. In Connecticut, they’re free.

To be clear, while these messages are electronic, they’re not email, and are not sent via email protocols. The messages themselves have character limits and don’t support attachments; they also typically don’t support the Unicode character sets that would allow many non-English languages to be used. Inmates are often charged per minute to use the tablets that allow them to send and receive mail to begin with. Data about the messages and their recipients is mined and shared with the prison authority.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an unregulated industry. The proceeds of these fees are shared with the prisons. The tablets themselves are often made freely available to prisons, because each service on them makes their supplier money. Because the revenue is split with the prisons, most prison systems are not going to complain about the unfair pricing policies.

One of the most popular providers, JPay, is largely a prison financial services company that was fined under the Consumer Financial Protection Act for gouging its customers. You may recall a John Oliver piece on prison labor that included a mention of its 45% transfer fees some years ago. Some prisons were contractually obligated to phase out in-person visits, meaning that video calls and these electronic messages were the only way many inmates could contact their families, sending them into debt in the process.

Debt is an important component of this exploitation. The real underlying reason for these high costs is a combination of collusion between prison authorities and the private providers, and a lack of concern for prisoners and their families. Financial debt has a negative impact on re-entry outcomes, as well as family well-being and mental health. Or to put it another way, it keeps people in the prison system, where they can be exploited for labor to the tune of $11bn worth of goods and services a year. With this amount of money on the line, it’s in nobody’s interest to create equitable conditions for prisoners.

Elsewhere in the world, prisons are experimenting with internet access in prisons without this exploitative profit motive. In parts of Australia, Germany, the Philippines, and elsewhere, access with varying degrees of supervision is allowed. This corresponds to a different attitude to incarceration: one that centers around rehabilitation and preventing re-entry rather than imprisonment for profit. Given the wildly disproportionate degree to which people of color are incarcerated in the United States, it’s not too hard to determine the underlying cause of this difference in attitudes.

The problem has more to do with a societal approach; the corruption of individual prison systems and service providers is an outcome of this rather than the cause. In America, rather than people who often need help, the incarcerated are resources to be exploited, at the center of a system that keeps almost two million people behind bars. And that’s why we charge them to message their loved ones.

· Posts