The Idaho prison tablets “hack” is a lesson in how to cover the prison business

Stories about prison tablets are becoming more common. We offer tips to newsrooms for covering this issue fairly.

by Wanda Bertram, August 2, 2018

This month, while we were uncovering the hidden costs of JPay’s “free” prison tablets, people incarcerated in Idaho were discovering something else: a way to “hack” JPay’s software to transfer credits to their own accounts.

It’s never certain how a story like this will be covered in the news, or how readers will react. But on Twitter, readers overwhelmingly sympathized with the “hackers” behind bars:

We tip our hats to readers who intuitively put this story into perspective. However, some news sites missed the point, with headlines like “Prison inmates hacked into tablets to steal nearly a quarter-million dollars,” or “Inmates ‘Hack’ Prison-Issued Tablets, Swiping $225,000 in In-App Bucks for Music and Games.”

For newsrooms covering prison tablets, we have some suggestions:

  1. Be wary of describing prison retailers the way they describe themselves. A company that “provides inmates with access to the outside world” at no cost to taxpayers sounds good, but what if that company sustained itself by grossly overcharging people in prison?
  2. If you’re talking about credits, don’t say “dollars.” A “quarter-million dollars” in tablet credits buys a lot less than you’d expect (see #3 and #4).
  3. Explain that the credits aren’t just for music and games. People in prison are also charged for video chats, email and money transfer – things that cost you and me almost nothing. Most of the Idaho hackers gifted themselves $1,000 in credits (or less). That amount – at least in other states whose contracts we’ve studied – buys less than 60 hours of video chat.
  4. Don’t forget to explain that these systems are unlike anything in the free world. The economy for digital services in prison is broken, with prisons often offering monopoly contracts to providers that will charge customers the most.

Finally, a general tip for covering the prison business: Talk to incarcerated people and their loved ones. For those forced to use JPay, the big story may not be the “exploitation” of vulnerable software, but the company’s ongoing exploitation of vulnerable families.

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