Victoria Law on Marketplace: How email services in prison exploit incarcerated people

As our research as shown, companies like JPay gouge people who are already overcharged and underpaid.

by Wanda Bertram, August 8, 2018

In prison, you can be overcharged to send an email – something tricky to explain to people on the outside. On Marketplace this week, Victoria Law breaks down how companies like JPay have managed to turn email into a paid service.

JPay’s service is cheap, Law says, “but not necessarily a great deal.” As we’ve explained in the past, JPay gouges people who earn almost nothing, and who are already overcharged for services like medical care.

Below is the transcribed radio interview in full:

Kai Ryssdal:
A lot of people probably heard of a company called JPay for the first time last week. It’s a technology company, in a way, that operates in prisons in more than 20 states, but it was the Idaho State Correctional System that made headlines after 364 inmates hacked into JPay’s system to steal $225,000 worth of JPay services. Victoria Law has been covering JPay for WIRED and we got her on the phone for a bit more on this story. Welcome to the program.
Victoria Law:
Thanks for having me.
Kai Ryssdal:
So explain to me a little bit, would you, what this service is that JPay provides.
Victoria Law:
JPay provides a number of services. One of those services is “e-messaging,” which is a rudimentary form of email. So if you think about email, say back in the early to mid 1990s, it’s that kind of email, where it’s plain text. You can’t say go from your email to Google or Facebook or something else. JPay charges a fee which they call a “stamp” per page, and a page is roughly 500 words. So if you were, say, to send a long letter, you would have to buy multiple “stamps.”
Kai Ryssdal:
Right. And it replaces, in theory, phone calls – of which there has been much in the news of late about how they’re being made more expensive by Bureau of Prisons policy – but also I imagine regular old snail-mail, right?
Victoria Law:
Yes. For many people, JPay even though it is expensive, it is still cheaper than the price of a prison phone call, which can be anywhere from $.20 or $.21 per minute to as much as $18 for a 20-minute phone call.
Kai Ryssdal:
Wow!
Victoria Law:
So JPay is still cheaper, but it is not necessarily a great deal. If you think about the postal service, you can put your letter plus three photos of a family reunion or a new baby into an envelope, throw a stamp on it, throw in the mailbox and that’s it. With JPay you would have to pay for the letter, and then for each photo individually.
Kai Ryssdal:
There are probably no consumer satisfaction surveys for JPay…But do you know, what the inmates think about it versus the way it used to be?
Victoria Law:
First of all, JPay, when it contracts with a state prison system, that is the only company that has e-messaging.

So it’s not like on the outside where if you don’t like Yahoo or whatever, you go to Gmail, you either use the contracted e-messaging company whether it is JPay or one of its competitors, or you don’t use e-messaging at all.

So for many people they use it because that is their only choice, but they also note that, say, if their family member is elderly or doesn’t have a computer, it then makes it much more difficult to communicate because prisons that have contracted with JPay have also used this as an opportunity to cut down on the kinds of mail that people can get.

Kai Ryssdal:
A word here about the cost of these things, of this service rather, and you lay it out pretty well in this article, but $.47 inside a prison is not the same as $.47 outside the prison.
Victoria Law:
No, you have to remember that the majority of people in prison, if they are working a job in the prison, make something around $0.12 an hour. That money has to pay for not only things like JPay, but also necessities like aspirin – or in many prisons they charge a co-pay for a medical visit. So it falls largely upon the family members of people who are inside jails and prisons to cover these costs.
Kai Ryssdal:
Victoria Law writing about JPay most recently in WIRED. Her book about part of the prison complex in this country is called Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Victoria, thanks a lot for your time. I appreciate it.
Victoria Law:
Thanks for having me.

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