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US prisons now offer inmates 'electronic messaging,' but it's not really e-mail

Understanding others

Inmates in some jails and prisons can receive – but not always send – messages, which cost on average 50 cents each, a burden that falls particularly on inmates' families, finds a new report released Thursday by the Prison Policy Initiative.

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    Inmates serving a jail sentence make a phone call at Maricopa County's Tent City jail in Phoenix, Ariz., on July 30, 2010. Jails and prisons are increasingly offering electronic messaging services, but they often differ from e-mail used by people on the outside, a new report finds.
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For incarcerated people — letters sent back and forth to friends and family can often be a lifeline to the outside world.

They’ve been the basis of manifestos – Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one – provided material for novels — the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was forbidden to write in prison but later reconstructed his experiences as the novel “House of the Dead” – and even become the format of songs – such as the rapper Nas’s “One Love.”

But in the digital age, as e-mail has come to supplant handwritten words for people across the world, inmates in the US face a far different picture, according to a new report released Thursday by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

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In contrast to what’s often thought of as the basic openness of e-mail, electronic messaging services for inmates are proprietary systems run by commercial companies, which charge inmates and families fees for each message they send. On average, messages cost about 50 cents, though they can range from a low of 5 cents to a high of $1.25 for a text-only message, the group found.

“Calling the electronic messaging offered to incarcerated people and their families 'email' would be an insult to email,” says Stephen Raher, a pro bono legal analyst for PPI who authored the report, in a statement.

The systems come with particular limits — preserving a message for posterity is often difficult, while many services have strict character limits of as high as 6,000 characters and as low as 1,500. Sending “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” via electronic message, for example, would take 27 separate messages with a 1,500 character limit, writes Mr. Raher, an Oregon-based attorney.

And, in a more marked difference from the outside world, messaging systems are sometimes inbound-only, meaning that while an inmate can receive messages — after being screened by prison officials — they must respond by handwritten letter.

Private, for-profit prison phone companies such as Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link, which have built up an effective monopoly on the industry, are increasingly offering bundles that include messaging services and Skype-like video visitation technology to jails and prisons, the report finds.

While prisoners are barred from accessing the Internet, with some states explicitly banning access, companies have also expanded from offering calls and financial services to digital devices such as music players and tablets that meet prisons’ concerns about security.

“We’re looking for products that an inmate would want to buy and a corrections facility would accept,” Ryan Shapiro, the founder of JPay, a prison financial services provider, told Bloomberg in 2012. The company, which said it aspired to become the “Apple of the US prison system,” was acquired by phone giant Securus last year.

Groups such as PPI that advocate on behalf of prisoners and their families have particularly focused on the prison phone industry, successfully lobbying the Federal Communications Commission along with a host of other organizations to reform the rates that inmates’ families pay for both in-state and state-to-state calls, most recently in November.

The services hold promise as a way to connect inmates and families and friends who may not be able to visit them in-person on a regular basis, but the model used by many companies is problematic, PPI argues.

“New technologies such as video visitation and electronic messaging have the potential to improve quality of life for incarcerated people and help correctional administrators effectively run secure facilities. Yet the promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams for both private and public coffers,” writes Raher.

That’s because, in exchange for an exclusive contract, phone companies return anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of their profits to local jails and prisons. This practice, known as a “site commission” — which advocacy groups argue is essentially a kickback to jails and prisons — has invited scrutiny from federal and state regulators, with Louisiana’s Public Service Commissioner describing it as “worse than any payday loan scheme.”

In the wake of the FCC’s decision to cap inmate phone rates for both in-state and state-to-state calls at $1.65 for a 15-minute call, PPI’s Raher notes that phone companies could increasingly expand into new technologies such as electronic messaging, which — unlike the outside Internet — is currently unregulated.

The pre-paid cards and financial services provided to inmates by companies such as JPay have also invited scrutiny from members of Congress because of the high fees charged to users.

PPI’s report notes that while prison phone companies have historically reaped large profits from fees charged to inmates and families, much of which goes back to jails and prisons, it’s difficult to tell how much profit electronic messaging services generate.

In 2014, JPay made $8.5 million in revenue from its electronic messaging service or 12 percent of its corporate revenue, according to a lender presentation Securus made in April 2015 that was obtained by PPI. The service accepts both inbound and outbound messages and can also send short video messages, according to the presentation.

Other companies have gone further, with the service provider Telmate filing a patent for a securely-monitored, closed “social network” for inmates in 2013.

The company is also seeking approval for technology that would allow correctional facilities to track how many times particular people had called or made financial deposits to an inmate in order to determine their “threat level.”

This level also includes the ability to evaluate an inmate’s risk of other events, such as returning to prison, a feature that has also been touted by companies such as Microsoft. The collection of data through such services raises privacy concerns for PPI.

“It’s not hard to imagine messages being subpoenaed for use in civil litigation or family law proceedings,” writes Raher, noting that Securus previously suffered a large-scale data breach, though it’s unclear if electronic messaging was impacted.

"Once again, it seems that the prison phone giants are providing more of the same old exploitation rather than providing true innovation,” he adds in a statement.

[Editor's note: This article has been changed from its original form to correct the name of the Prison Policy Initiative.]

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