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It’s not Taking Advantage of a Disenfranchised Population — It’s the Free Enterprise System

It’s okay if you take advantage of inmates, right?

I’m mean they don’t have a voice. There’s no way they can vote, since most states don’t allow prisoners to vote in any elections.  They can’t organize in unions. And they have no access to legislatures.

If they could vote, they would have a significant voter bloc since there are more than 1.5 million inmates, plus another 700, 000 people in jails.

Maybe things would change if they could vote. Maybe the food would get better when it’s supplied by private companies. Maybe there would be sufficient staff in private prisons to prevent assaults, and maybe excessive fees charged by private companies would be reduced.

The excessive fees charged by companies contracting with both state departments of corrections but also federal prisons include charges for inmate phone calls and the transfer of money to prisoners. The companies that control both are led by Global Tel-Link, a company based in Reston, Virginia, has contracts with 2,200 correctional facilities, and JPay, a Miramar, Florida company. JPay grosses more than $50 million a year. Global Tel-Link Corporation grosses nearly as much.

How do these two companies make such big money?

How much does it cost you to make a phone call on your cell phone? Basically, your phone calls are free if you’re calling friends or family who have the same phone service as you. Otherwise, your per phone call rates are a few cents per call. But, prisoners cannot have cell phones. The reason for this is if inmates had phone calls, maybe one percent of them would engage in some form of criminal behavior. It doesn’t matter that most would have easier access to their families or their children. So cell phones are banned in prisons and jails.

And it’s not like, families can just drive to the facility to see their incarcerated loved one. That’s because most prisons in most states are far away from urban areas, and in many, if not most states, there’s no public transportation to correctional facilities that’s easily accessible for family members.

Thus, if they want to make a phone call, or have video access (which some private companies and some state corrections departments allow), then they have to pay the going rate. The going rate was at least 50 cents a minute until earlier this year when the Federal Communications Commission put a 25 cents-a-minute cap on interstate telephone rights. However, local phone rates can still be higher. A 15 or 20-minute phone can cost as much as $7.00 or more.

But what about transferring money? How much does it cost to transfer money from a family member to an inmate’s account?

That depends on which company runs the banking service. The JPay company has a monopoly on Internet and financial services within correctional institutions. Not only do they charge a minimum of 25 cents for an email message, but in Missouri, for example, it costs $3.95 to transfer $10 into an inmate’s account; in Illinois, it costs $5.95. In some states the department of corrections does not allow any other means of transferring money into a prisoner’s account other than by using JPay. That is, you can’t just purchase a money order for a small fee and send it to an inmate. You have to go through JPay. In most states the fees for money transfers can be as high as 45 percent.

What do inmates need money for?

As it turns out, being in prison is not that cushy deal that many people think it is. Most prisoners must pay for their basic needs. That is, they must use their own money for such things as stamps, envelopes, paper and pens, toothpaste, toilet paper, visits to a prison doctor, and new clothes. In some correctional facilities, inmates must pay room and board, buy their own seeds if they want to plant a garden, subscribe to a magazine if they want to read a certain magazine regularly, and pay for cable TV.

Inmates earn very little money when they work. Often it is as little as 12 cents an hour, although it can be as much as a few dollars an hour. Which, of course, means they cannot afford many necessities. That usually puts the burden on their families, and families of inmates are often poor – many living in poverty. Having to supply money to prisoners for basic needs may keep them living below the poverty level.

The executives and shareholders of companies like Global Tel-Link and JPay are thriving. Both companies generate a minimum of $50 million from prisoners and their families. That was in 2013. This year they may do considerably better.

No matter what the executives of JPay and other companies say about providing an important service, being concerned about inmates and their families, and keeping expenses down, both companies are in it for the money. And there is no evidence that they will do anything except continue to charge whatever they can get away with from inmates and their families.

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