In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” defending his practice of nonviolent resistance to racism. If King were in jail today, however, he might have to send the letter through 27 separate messages, and he would have to pay for every one of them.
Private companies are increasingly offering prisons an electronic messaging system similar to email for prisoners to communicate with loved ones and lawyers. The process has been called predatory for charging prisoners high fees to send limited messages, according to a report released last week by the Massachusetts-based think tank the Prison Policy Initiative. Attorneys have argued that the system also doesn’t afford inmates the attorney-client privilege inherent in face-to-face conversations, while supporters say it allows prisoners to keep in better contact with their families.
“This is a totally predatory system. This is being done to monetize human contact between prisoners and their families,” Paul Wright, director of the Florida-based prisoner advocacy group the Human Rights Defense Center, said. “They set up these elaborate systems to basically charge people.”
Electronic mail services for prisoners were introduced about a decade ago, offered by companies known for providing pay phones to federal and state prisons and jails, such as Securus and Global Tel*Link. The for-profit prison phone industry has been highly scrutinized for the prices it made inmates pay to call outside prison walls, sometimes ballooning up to $14 a minute. In October, the Federal Communications Commission intervened, capping how much the companies could charge for calls. The new average comes out to about $2.65 for a 15-minute call both in and out of the state.
But Bernadette Rabuy, policy and communications associate with PPI, said the FCC capping the prison phone rates is only pushing these companies to unregulated areas, including the electronic messaging service. Because many inmates in the U.S. aren’t allowed access to the internet, this system is often the only email game in town.
The electronic mail systems are typically inbound-only systems, meaning free people can send messages to an inmate but the inmate has to reply by a traditional letter, the PPI said in its report, titled “You’ve Got Mail: The promise of cyber communication in prisons and the need for regulation.” The PPI found that the fees range from 5 cents to $1.25 a message, and because the messages sometimes have character limits ranging from 1,500 to 6,000, prisoners have to pay more to send longer messages.
“We know that incarcerated people are some of the poorest people in the country, and there’s a huge range in the rates charged to families,” Rabuy said. “These communications tools should be really useful for incarcerated people and their families, but time and time again we’re seeing they’re used for profit.”
Prisons have an incentive to install electronic messaging systems, as they typically aren’t charged for the service. “It creates an incentive not only because [prisons are] not paying anything for, but because they’re offered a commission,” Rabuy said.
The commissions can range from 10 to 50 percent of the revenue. The money prisons receive on commission is minuscule compared to their other revenue sources, but the simple fact that inmates are being forced to pay to talk to people outside prison is still problematic, Wright said.
“What they’re doing is shifting costs of running the police state onto the back of the policed,” Wright said.
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Inmates using the system to talk to their attorneys also have to be wary about what they say, as the conversations can be monitored at any time, unlike in-person or phone conversations. The electronic messaging system is convenient for attorneys not only because it is faster than writing a letter, but also because it provides a quick alternative to going to see a client in jail, which can often be an all-day trip, Elliot Dolby-Shields, an attorney with the New York County Lawyers’ Association said.
“Email is the way everyone communicates these days, and even for attorneys it’s very burdensome to make an in-person visit,” Dolby-Shields said. “It takes half a day — first you have to schedule it, then you have to wait for hours for your person to be produced.”
The NYCLA wrote a report in July requesting the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which houses the nation’s federal prisoners, to implement a system where clients can electronically message their attorneys without fear of being monitored. The group’s position is that anything that substantially interferes with an inmate’s ability to communicate with an attorney is unconstitutional, and that inmates shouldn’t have to fear that what they say in an email could be used against them in court.
While the system has detractors, the corrections departments that use it have touted it as a good way for inmates to stay in touch with family. The Nevada Department of Corrections has an inbound-only messaging system, with the person sending the message required to pay the fee, Brooke Keast, spokeswoman for the department, said.
“Our email system is effective and very popular,” Keast said. “Inmates have the opportunity to receive messages from family and friends and can be kept in the loop of life events happening on the outside.”
Inmates in the Michigan Department of Corrections pay $5 for 20 typed pages or $10 for 50 pages, department spokesman Chris Gautz said. While people have complained about the prices, Gautz said it’s a service that is better to have than not.
“As a department, we’re focused on prisoner re-entry, and having family connections is a big piece of that because men and woman are going to need to have connections in community when they re-enter society,” Gautz said. “[The electronic message system] is very vital, especially for those who are far away from home and maybe their family doesn’t have ability to travel.”
— Prison Policy Init. (@PrisonPolicy) December 31, 2015
But the electronic messaging system is far from efficient, Wright said. Email is free to everyone else, he said, so why can’t it be free to people in jail?
“It’s the sheer inconvenience of it,” Wright said. “They put in a lot of time and effort in to make everything as inconvenient as possible to use this system.”