The Florida Department of Corrections defends its decision to turn to a company called JPay to digitize inmate mail by arguing the delivery system is crucial to preventing the flow of dangerous contraband like fentanyl into its 143 state prison facilities.
Left unsaid is that JPay controlling the flow of mail to 80,000 Florida inmates is likely to greatly enhance company profits with dollars spent by inmates and their loved ones, a segment of the population often hard-pressed to make ends meet.
"Prisoners have to pay to communicate the way the rest of us do for free," said Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group for incarcerated persons. "It's highly exploitive and centered around getting as much money as they can out of the family."
Previously: Florida tweaks plan to digitize inmate mail, moves ahead with proposal
Related: Handwritten letters are all Florida prisoners have left. Now FDC wants to take that away
The toll of the constant billing can be devastating for families without the means to keep up. An FCC report released in April found that as many as 34% of families will go into debt in order to maintain communication with an incarcerated family member.
The same study revealed that some low-income families are forced to choose between telephone calls to incarcerated family members and buying essential food and medicines.
Alternatively, studies have shown that inmates who communicate regularly with loved ones are less likely to re-offend upon leaving jail or prison.
JPay and companies like it have found a host of ways to make money through their work with jails and prisons. They defend the inflated charges and fees they foist upon inmates and their loved ones as a cost of performing valuable services. Computerized mail service will add another layer of charges.
Inmates, or those paying to communicate with them, are already billed by a telecommunications vendor for nearly every minute they spend on the phone, even for leaving a voicemail.
They're required to purchase stamps to communicate by mail or email, and it costs money to send money to an inmate to allow him or her to purchase the needed stamps or other materials approved for use in sending out mail.
In case you missed it: Plan to digitize prison mail sparks outcry among inmates’ families, advocates
At the Blackwater River Correctional Facility state prison in Santa Rosa County with a listed inmate capacity of 2,000, stamps required to send emails cost $4.40 for 11, $11 for 27, $18 for 49, and $25 for 77.
Inmate friends and families are also billed for the purchase or rental of devices used to hold email conversations, watch movies or play music.
And those without a credit card or bank account to use to refresh pre-paid inmate accounts must turn to wire transfer companies like Western Union, who charge exorbitant prices of their own for jail or prison services, sometimes returning a portion of their profits to the jail communications vendor.
"The families die by a thousand cuts with this stuff," said Fort Myers resident Jeff Good. "They bleed these poor guys for money."
Good, a building contractor, met Michael Edwards when he was mentoring Edwards' son. The two remained friends even after Edwards was sentenced to a lengthy term in prison on a drug charge and sent to Liberty Correctional Institute in Florida's Panhandle.
"I have been supporting and advocating for him for over 20 years," said Good, who estimated he's been sending Edwards $100 a month for the last 15 years.
"I send him money all the time to pay for phone calls, emails, all that crap. And the food is so crappy there, you send money so they can buy something to eat and other stuff at the commissary," he said. "It seems like every time you turn around you're sending them $50 or $100 bucks for something."
On its website, Miramar-based JPay defends the fees it charges.
"The company spends our own money to deploy infrastructure and conduct ongoing maintenance," it said. "Therefore there are fees associated with using our products and services. People can use JPay's electronic services or choose to use other forms of communications, such as sending letters through the mail and using money order forms."
Soon the option of sending letters, physical mail to hold in your hand, could be cut off too.
As of Nov. 29, following a tweak of the Florida Administrative Code, DOC began requiring routine incoming inmate mail to be scanned onto an electronic format available for viewing on a tablet, or via kiosks, both of which would be provided by JPay at no cost to the prison or the inmate.
"This solution enables incarcerated individuals to receive mail from loved ones, increases the safety of all those in the facility, and decreases the labor from FLDOC to process and assure the safety of mail," according to Jade Trombetta, spokeswoman for Securus Technologies, the parent company of JPay.
With the state contract in hand, JPay will begin uploading pieces of physical mail as images to cloud storage for inmate consumption. While the tablet is free, the mail will be processed for the cost of a 39-cent "stamp" — that DOC notes on its website is less than what the U.S. Postal Service charges.
"The only fee the sender will be subject to with tangible mail will be the postage stamp fee that is required by the federal government," said Jade Trombetta, spokeswoman for Securus Technologies, the parent company of JPay, in an email.
Inmates seeking to hang on to the memory or images they receive digitally rather than physically will have to pay extra — 10 cents a page for black-and-white paper copies of scanned images and $1 a page for color printouts.
Janet Borchers, who has a nephew housed in the Broward County Jail and another relative housed in state prison, said she feels fortunate to be able to afford to cover the costs associated with communicating with her loved ones, but often thinks about those facing a more difficult economic situation.
"I think about other people and how they do this. They don't have money," she said. "It's very expensive, you have to pay money for everything."
Borchers said she had previously driven two and a half hours to visit with her nephew at the Broward County Jail, but since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she can only visit via videocam.
"It's $5.50 for a 30-minute video visit. Telephone calls are $12 to $15 apiece and you can only put $50 in an account, so you're constantly depositing more money." she said. "While I wouldn't want to do without (the services), they're not great."
Edwards, the inmate with whom Good interacts, said not only the technology, but the services offered by JPay, leave much to be desired.
"I'm offered a selection of PG and PG-13 and unrated movies, some from the '80s, that are mainly for children to watch. They cost up to $7.99 to rent for 30 days, but the actual 'viewing period' is only 48 hours," he said in an email sent through JPay. "What happens a lot of times is the movies won't download properly so there's no sound or the picture's blurry or the WiFi goes 'offline' and I can't open my rentals to view movies and they expire, or we're locked down and can't use our tablets and the movies expire."
2018: Prisons roll out more for-profit services while weighing visitation cuts
JPay won't refund lost money either, Edwards said.
"I have to write a 'ticket' every time there's an issue," he said. "But JPay will only allow one ticket to be written at a time and I can't write a next one until the first ticket is resolved, which usually takes two weeks."
The Prison Policy Initiative started looking at jail communications about 10 years ago, according to Bertram.
"We learned that most of the prisons in America were outsourcing to vendors to provide communication services," she said. "And we began hearing families were paying extremely high rates, like a dollar a minute or more to communicate."
The Prison Policy Initiative also discovered "bigger and bigger" telecom companies providing services to jails and prisons were gobbling up smaller competitors.
A lack of competition further encourages pricing exploitation, Bertram said.
Established in 2002, JPay itself ceased to exist as an independent entity in 2015 when it was bought out by Securus Technologies, a Dallas company.
JPay, Securus Technologies and a third business, Allpaid, now operate under the umbrella of Aventiv. Allpaid has a lucrative market of its own acting as a go-between for people dealing with court services like finding a bail bondsman or making court ordered payments.
Aventiv reports to a firm called Platinum Equity, founded by Tom Gores, the billionaire owner of the Detroit Pistons basketball team.
Gores' company paid $1.6 billion to purchase Securus Technologies in 2017, according to a diagram put together by Prison Policy Initiative.
Securus Technologies dominates the prison/jail communication market alongside another mega-company called Global Tel-Link Corp, or GTL, which this year took over the Florida DOC's telephone communication contract, replacing Securus in that market niche.
GTL, through its ConnectNetwork, took over in March, Trombetta confirmed, though the Securus Technologies contract was extended through June "to allow for GTL to complete their install."
The investment firm of American Securities purchased GTL for $1 billion in 2011. At that time, according to reports of the merger, GTL held "14 of the 20" largest state contracts in the corrections communications industry.
The FCC reported that Securus Technologies, GTL and a smaller company known as ICSolutions today supply 58% of all inmate calling services contracts and cover approximately 78% of all incarcerated people.
From 2019: Lawsuit: FDC illegally requiring inmates to repurchase music, books
The Prison Policy Initiative speaks on its website of helping to bring about meaningful reform in prison communications. It and other activist groups have publicly exposed some of the most egregious abuses.
The Federal Communications Commission has itself spoken out against the grip the telecom companies have on the nation's correctional institutions.
"Unlike virtually everyone else in the United States, incarcerated people have no choice in their telephone service provider. Instead, their only option typically is to use a service provider chosen by the correctional facility, and once chosen, that service provider typically operates on a monopoly basis," the agency said in a published opinion.
"Egregiously high rates and charges and associated unreasonable practices for the most basic and essential communications capability – telephone service – impedes incarcerated peoples' ability to stay connected with family and loved ones, clergy, and counsel, and financially burdens incarcerated people and their loved ones," the FCC said.
The FCC's efforts to regulate the industry, however, have been only partially successful. While the agency has succeeded in capping the per-minute cost on interstate phone calls going in and out of jails and prisons, the courts have prevented it from stepping in to regulate the more commonplace intrastate calls.
"Intrastate rates for debit or prepaid calls exceed interstate rates in 45 states, with 33 states allowing rates that are at least double the state's interstate cap and 27 states allowing 'first minute' charges that can be more than 25 times that of the first minute of an interstate call," FCC researchers said in its April report.
This year the FCC was able to secure an agreement that capped interstate and international calls at 12 cents a minute. Experts say interstate and international calls, though, comprise just 20% of the total calls made.
The FCC report cited an example of a service provider at one facility charging $5.34 for the first minute of an intrastate call and an additional $1.39 per minute afterward. A second charged $6.50 for the first minute and $1.25 per minute thereafter.
The cost for a 15-minute call, the study found, could run as high as $24.80.
In Florida, state prisons across the board charge a 99-cent deposit fee on every call into or out of a prison and 13.5 cents for every minute of conversation. The first two five-minute calls of the month are free and maximum length phone calls have been extended up to 30 minutes.
Prison Policy Initiative lists several reasons why state prisons have, across the board, been more amenable to holding phone rates down as compared to county jails, where communication vendors continue to charge about twice as much per minute for incoming and outgoing calls.
One reason cited is the size difference between prisons and jails and the fact that prisons have the means to analyze costs and benefits of a proposed contract. Another is prisons often staff employees with experience in negotiating the best deals.
A third reason was with prison sentences being longer than time typically spent in a county jail, "families can put sustained political pressure" on lawmakers, who in turn act to pass laws lowering the costs of calls at state prisons.
Jails and prisons also profit from contracting with telecom vendors for services. Securus Technologies and GTL defend payments made to the jails or prisons, referring to them as "site commissions."
"The relationship these vendors have with jails and prisons has become deeply toxic," she said. "And if the vendors terminated service one day, the jail or prison would not even know how to function."
The Walton County Jail, a small Northwest Florida facility, receives through its contract with GettingOut, another GTL subsidiary, 94% of all call revenues, 50% of gross revenues from remote video visits, 20% of the gross revenues from email messaging and inbound voicemail messages and of all tablet premium content.
A review of other jail contracts reveals a similar distribution of "site commissions."
Walton County Jail Warden Cory Godwin said the $208,000 his facility will receive this year from GettingOut will be used to help defray the costs of some novel programs that include prisoner GED classes, heavy equipment operation instruction, welding classes and vocational training.
Feeling pressure from the FCC, Godwin said the jail decided in October to drop its per minute phone call rate from 25 to 21 cents. That's going to cut into the budget for inmate programs.
"They don't want to help 'til it hurts," Godwin said of the FCC.
Perhaps ironically, the billionaire Gores' ownership of both Securus Technologies and the Detroit Pistons has focused enough attention on the prison telecommunications industry that changes are being promised in the way Securus Technologies and J-Pay, at least, are doing business.
In February, the Detroit Free Press reported that several social justice organizations had collaborated to raise awareness about Gores' ties to Securus.
Securus Technologies:Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores speaks about controversy over Securus
An organization called Worth Rises ran a full-page ad in the New York Times promoting a petition calling for the NBA to force Gores to sell the Pistons because of his investment in Securus, the newspaper said.
“If Black Lives Matter, what are you doing about Detroit Pistons' owner Tom Gores?” the message to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the league's 30 other owners said, according to the story.
Since that time, Securus CEO David Abel has come out publicly in support of the FCC order that recently imposed the 12-cent rate cap and other requirements on inmate telephone service.
“We believe it is long overdue for our industry to stop fighting with reform-minded regulators and legislators,” Abel was quoted as saying. “Instead, we need to adopt a more collaborative approach that balances the needs of the incarcerated individuals and their families who use and pay for our services and the corrections agencies that contract for them.”
Bertram, however, is pessimistic. She points out that while Securus Technologies boasted of providing 40 million free phone calls, 322.5 million free minutes of phone connections, 6.4 million free video connections to families and friends of incarcerated individuals and 23.8 million free JPay stamps for free electronic messages in the first year of the pandemic, research had revealed that the company secured record profits for the same period.
GTL boasted providing 22 million phone calls, 2.5 million messages and six million minutes of video visitation free of charge during the pandemic.
Critics said the telecom companies finally achieved in 2020 what it had been striving for all along, an end to face-to-face jail and prison visits.
"Just a few years ago, Securus was contractually requiring facilities to end or limit visits to force families to use their costly phone and video calling services. The corporation stopped this practice in response to public outrage, and some states even passed laws to protect visits," a Worth Rises report from July states. "But when the pandemic hit and all prisons and jails across the country shuttered their visit rooms – those who still had them – Securus’ dreams became reality,"
The report states in 2020, call volume between inmates and their loved ones grew in some places by as much as 53% and Worth Rises research indicated that Securus Technologies revenues grew by $69.5 million in 2020, to $767.5 million.
"Call volume skyrocketed," Worth Rises said, "and with it, Securus’ revenue."