Prisons add for-profit services, consider visitation cuts
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Department of Corrections is receiving an influx of cash from a private vendor that facilitates all monetary transactions inside the prisons — at a steep cost to inmates’ loved ones. Now, with multimedia kiosks coming to every facility, it stands to gain even more.
Wives, mothers, daughters and fiances pleaded with corrections officials at a public hearing on May 31 not to reduce their chances to see their loved ones in prison.
But the Florida Department of Corrections is proposing a rule change that would allow them to do just that — cut prison visitation in half at facilities under certain conditions.
At the same time, the department in the last six months has been phasing in multimedia kiosks at virtually every one of its facilities that would allow different kinds of contact, emails and video calling, which will be available at a significant cost to friends and families.
With the backdrop of a contentious fight over visitation rules, revenue from money transfers used to purchase for-profit services offered inside the prisons has spiked in recent months. The Florida-based company contracting with the department, JPay, offers prison banking and other services in 35 states.
The department brought in a record high $350,000 last month in commissions from inmates and their loved ones exchanging funds to purchase everything from bars of soap in the commissary to electronic “stamps” used to send emails that can take several days to get to their recipient. In the last year, the agency received about $3.5 million in commissions, according to a Times-Union review of contracts and internal records. That’s up from about $2.3 million four years ago.
With the statewide expansion of multimedia kiosks, the department — which gets $2.75 for each money transfer into an inmate’s private bank account — stands to bring in more cash as inmates will have greater access to email services. Video calling, however, is purchased directly by inmates’ loved ones and will not lead to more commissions for the department.
If the department does in fact reduce in-person visitation, loved ones will be more reliant on either traditional postage stamps or the new electronic services.
“The fact that they’re implementing a policy that allows facilities to reduce in-person visits suggests to me that what they’re actually doing is trying to funnel people into these for-profit video calling systems,” said Lucius Couloute, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.
Couloute said video calling services are in use at more than 700 facilities across the country, most of them local jails. At those jails, about 74 percent of them eliminate or reduce in-person visits, he added.
The department has strongly contested that it is planning to ultimately swap out in-person visits for video calling, saying the calls are merely a supplement to visitation.
Critics of the department, however, are not convinced. They’re concerned the department is looking for new revenue streams while exploiting prisoners and their families who have no other options for contacting each other.
In-person visits, experts say, are crucial to maintaining support networks for inmates who will need to rely on them when re-entering society in order not to re-offend and end up back in prison.
THE LIFECYCLE OF AN INMATE MONEY TRANSFER
A common complaint from people using JPay is that high fees dramatically reduce the amount of the money actually getting to their loved ones, who then pay steep prices for basic comforts such as shampoo and shaving cream and fees for virtual services such as sending emails.
For instance, if someone wanted to send an inmate $20 online, they would need to pay $24.95. The $4.95 fee goes to JPay, which funnels some of the money back to the department at a rate of $2.75 per money transfer. The JPay fees are even higher if you pay by phone.
Examples of costs that inmates pay for items in prison:
— If the inmate wants to send emails, he or she must purchase “stamps.” Ten stamps cost $4.40. That would allow the inmate to send 10, one-page emails, since each page sent requires one stamp. There’s an additional cost for attachments.
— A packet of four extra-strength Tylenol costs $1.70.
— Four tampons, which a female inmate might prefer to department-issued sanitary napkins, cost $4.02.
— A 4.2-ounce toothpaste costs $3.49.
— A small 2.25-ounce lady’s deodorant costs $3.15.
— A six-ounce tube of shaving cream costs $4.60.
— A 4.2-ounce packet of tuna fish costs $2.15.
— A 2.5-ounce bag of Lay’s potato chips costs $1.49.
A 15-minute video call, which will soon be offered in all prisons, will cost $2.95, but the call must be initiated by the inmate’s loved one, so it would not come out of the inmate’s JPay account and no commission will be paid to the state.
The department spokeswoman, Michelle Glady, described skepticism that the agency will eventually switch out in-person visits for video calling as a “conspiracy.” Its latest rule change, Glady pointed out, explicitly defines visitation as “on-site.”
Video calling, she added, can be done remotely, and would actually benefit people who don’t have a way of getting to the prison where their loved one is housed.
Glady has contended that the agency does not profit off JPay’s services. She said the money from commissions pays for salaries of people who “operate all of the exchange” and the infrastructure to run the inmate bank.
A JPay spokeswoman said the company would not discuss its finances with the Times-Union.
Though Glady has said the commissions cover only the cost of running the banking services, she did not provide detailed expenditures from the administrative trust fund, where the money goes. The Times-Union requested those expenditures on May 24.
In November, the Miami Herald reported that the department used more than $320,000 from that same fund to supplement payouts in settlements to four whistleblowers not covered by the agency’s liability insurance.
‘THEY HAVE US ALL’
Tracie Natoli-Aaron said she can’t afford to purchase the $80 multimedia tablet that will be offered by JPay for her 20-year old daughter at Lowell Correctional Institution.
“It breaks my heart,” said Natoli-Aaron. “As much money as they make, it should be cheaper.”
Natoli-Aaron said she and others have no choice but to pay the nine-tiered JPay fees, which range from $1.95 to send up to $9.99 and $12.95 to send between $200 and $300.
The JPay contract comes at no cost to the state, meaning the company installs and monitors the technology itself. The fee structures families pay vary from state to state. Several of the services offered in Washington, for example, are available for roughly half the cost as one would pay in Florida.
Another woman, who asked that her name not be used due to fears that her fiance incarcerated at Central Florida Reception Center, might be retaliated against, said there is little left for her loved one after the fees are extracted and prices are factored in.
“I can send him twenty bucks and it barely gets him anything,” she said.
“If the fees were less, more would go to him. If the food was better, I wouldn’t have to send him as much, but it’s disgusting. Twice they got balls of bread crumbs with no chicken. He tells me, ‘I don’t know what I’m eating.’ ”
Running for about three hours, the public hearing on May 31 underscored the myriad challenges facing the state’s beleaguered corrections system.
In considering cuts to visitation, the department has cited both a spike in contraband introduction as well as staffing and funding shortages.
Speaker after speaker — including a former corrections officer and a former inmate — confirmed that contraband was a real issue, but contended it was coming from guards and staff, not visitors.
The department has not been able to point to any data to show that visitors were responsible for most of its contraband issues.
A Times-Union review of five years of arrest records at a nearby prison, Baker Correctional Institution, found that six visitors and three corrections officers were arrested on charges that directly or indirectly related to contraband smuggling. Additionally, only 2.5 percent of contraband discovered in the prisons statewide could be directly tied to visitation areas.
But it’s the loved ones of inmates who stand to pay more if in-person contacts are indeed cut.
Kathy Jo Carlin, an organizer of formerly incarcerated women in Florida who has an incarcerated daughter, said that the tablets and video calling will introduce comfort at a steep price for some, and heartbreak for those who cannot afford them, all on the backs of the families.
“JPay will make a killing and we will all be poorer,” Carlin said. “They think the tablets will replace programs they don’t have and are no longer because of funding, so what about families that can’t afford them? Where are their programs and incentives?”
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com