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Prison Phone Companies Seek New Revenue Source in Electronic Messaging

Prison phone companies are turning to a restricted form of email to turn a profit after the FCC capped exorbitant phone rates.

(Photo: Keyboard in Chains via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

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Would you still use email if every message had a word limit and was automatically declared to be the property of your email provider?

What if every email cost $1 to send and the receiver could not answer back by simply hitting “reply?”

“Calling the electronic messaging offered to incarcerated people and their families ’email’ would be an insult to email.”

That’s what it can be like to send an electronic message to a friend or loved one in jail or prison. For-profit companies like Corrlinks and JPay have already capitalized on the opportunity to offer painfully expensive “email” services to people incarcerated in some federal and state prisons. And prison phone companies, which have gouged prisoners and their families so deeply that federal regulators stepped in and capped rates for phone calls, are now offering their own services billed as “email for prisoners.”

But prison watchdogs say these services are not like email at all.

“Calling the electronic messaging offered to incarcerated people and their families ’email’ would be an insult to email,” said Stephen Raher, author of a recent report on electronic messaging services for Prison Policy Initiative.

New technologies for communicating with prisoners are emerging at a slower pace than those for communicating in the free world, but they are emerging nonetheless, raising a host of issues for incarcerated people and their families and advocates.

Videophone technology, for example, is allowing prisoners at some jails to pay for expensive video chats, but advocates fear videophones could replace in-person visitation – as it has at some county jails already – and even box out the much-needed expansion of video relay services for deaf prisoners. Electronic messaging is faster and more secure than traditional mail but has severe restrictions like character limits, making it no replacement for the written letters that prisoners and their friends and families have relied on for years. Of course, all messages are monitored by prison staff.

These new services do sometimes help to keep families connected, and research shows that maintaining these family ties is one of the best ways to reduce recidivism rates. However, unlike the innovations that have allowed free people to video chat or send emails from their phones, prison-based technologies all bear the mark of a lumbering system designed to warehouse bodies and eliminate personal freedom while turning prisoners and their families into revenue streams for private contractors, prison bureaus and sheriff’s departments.

Nothing Like Email

At least 10 companies providing services ranging from financial transactions to telephone calls now offer electronic messaging at hundreds of jails and prisons, but the services have severe limits, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report. Some services are “inbound only,” allowing only users on the outside to send electronic messages in. These messages are reviewed by prison staff and printed out for prisoners, who can reply with a written letter or a phone call.

Regular email is almost always free, but most users of prison-based electronic messaging pay a flat fee ranging from 50 cents to $1.25 per message. Free-world users typically pay the fees for prisoners – which leaves prisoners whose loved ones don’t have spare change in the lurch. Some services do allow incarcerated people to pay for electronic messages with commissary money, though much of that money also comes from people on the outside.

“The prison phone giants are providing more of the same old exploitation rather than providing true innovation.”

Then there are character limits, which make electronic messaging sort of like an expensive Twitter account that only two users can see, plus prison security. Limits range from 6,000 characters to as low as 1,500 characters, a rate that would have required Martin Luther King Jr. to send 27 separate messages in order to electronically send his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

A prison phone company would probably have had exclusive rights to publish King’s letter, because the “terms of service” agreement would have made each message the intellectual property of the provider.

Unlike email, electronic messaging services do not operate on the open internet. Most prisons ban direct, unsupervised access to the web, and have few computers to go around. This means that users on the outside must use special software or log into a website to send a message, and prisoners often wait for a spot to open up at a computer kiosk to use the service.

Electronic messages also have their benefits, which have made the services increasingly popular among users and prison officials alike. For officials, surveillance of electronic messages is easier: Unlike traditional mail, security prison staff can review messages electronically and with specific queries, and there’s no way to send contraband through electronic text. For prisoners, electronic messages are sometimes more convenient than phone calls for brief conversations, such as setting a time for a phone call or visit.

Raher and Prison Policy Initiative, however, warn that the technology is “primed to be just another opportunity for for-profit companies to exploit families and subvert federal and state regulation of phone calls home from prisons and jails.”

“Once again, it seems that the prison phone giants are providing more of the same old exploitation rather than providing true innovation,” Raher said.

Phone Companies Seek New Revenue Sources

After years of petitioning by reform advocates, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set an interim rate cap of 21 cents per minute for interstate prison calls in 2013. In October 2015, the FCC issued another historic ruling that capped rates at 11 cents per minute for all calls to and from state and federal prisons, and banned egregious add-on fees.

Before the orders, the FCC reports, the cost of a call at some prisons reached high as $14 per minute, placing a serious burden on prisoners and families that are often already struggling to make ends meet. Advocates and reformers celebrated the FCC’s order, but prison phone companies lashed out against the new rules, and three of the industry’s biggest players have since sued the FCC to have the order struck down.

The prison phone companies are looking for new ways to make money now that the FCC has capped exorbitant rates for phone calls.

Those three companies – Securus, Global Tel-Link and Telmate – are the general prison phone service providers now offering electronic messaging services as an option bundled with voice telephone and video visitation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report. “Offering such a service is likely part of a strategy diversifying corporate revenue sources at the expense of incarcerated people and their families,” Raher writes.

In other words, the prison phone companies are looking for new ways to make money now that the FCC has capped exorbitant rates for phone calls. If their lawsuit is unsuccessful, then their top source of inflated revenue will be gone for good, so they are eager to find other sources in unregulated areas.

It’s unclear if electronic messaging has yet to become a significant source of profit for the companies, but bundled services provide leverage in contract negotiations with jails and prisons. The services are typically offered at no additional cost to the prison, and companies often offer prison officials a commission from their revenues in exchange for monopoly contracts.

Reformers simply refer to these so-called “site commissions” as “kickbacks,” and the FCC, in its recent ruling, determined that they are “not related to providing calling services.” The FCC “strongly” discouraged the use of commissions and did not consider them to be costs to prison phone companies when determining the new rates, but the regulators failed to ban site commissions on phone and other services outright.

The FCC has asked advocates and the public for input on what rules for videophones should look like and may consider electronic messaging as well, but rules for rates and services could be years in the making and subject to partisan clashes. In the meantime, prison phone companies will continue providing stunted and expensive versions of modern communication technology to their captive audience of customers. After all, these companies don’t simply exist to keep people connected; they exist to turn a profit.

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