By Kevin Deutsch
Inmates at five New York State prisons recently received tablet computers as part of a new program, and will be able to exchange emails with those outside prison walls starting this month, Bronx Justice News has learned.
The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision distributed tablets to general population prisoners at five state correctional facilities in February, with several caveats: the tablets don’t have Wi-Fi access, inmates can’t access any content not pre-approved by state authorities, and most of the content must be purchased by inmates or their families and friends.
Prisoners with tablets can access a large selection of e-books, download songs from a music library of more than 10 million titles, watch movies and videos, read news stories, play computer games, make phone calls, use educational materials, and even file grievances.
Some of the content is free, but most of it comes at a price: In some U.S. facilities where the tablets are in use, computer games like solitaire can cost up to $7.99, while movie rentals and purchases can cost between $2 to $25.
The tablets are expected to be given to most of the 50,000-plus prisoners in state-run facilities by September, corrections officials said.
Inmates in special housing units, and other “restricted” areas outside general population floors, will receive “closed content tablets” with fewer capabilities and programming options in the coming months, officials said.
The tablet program is a result of a no-cost contract announced last year between the Department of Correction and JPay, a private company that provides corrections-related services and technology to inmates in more than 35 states. JPay currently operates New York City’s bail payment technology.
A state corrections department spokesperson said the tablet program has been successful so far.
“This program will better prepare incarcerated individuals to return to a society dominated by technology while also increasing social interactions with family and friends,” the spokesperson told Bronx Justice News. “Facilities participating in the pilot report that they are already seeing positive effects from the tablets.”
The tablets are being provided to inmates by JPay free of charge, officials said. And neither the state nor DOCCS will “take a commission on any incarcerated individual’s purchases, including phone calls,” the department spokesperson said.
JPay itself is expected to reap plenty of revenue from state inmates. The company will make money off all content purchases made by inmates and their families and friends, who can buy and share music, movies, emails, and programming using JPay’s app and website.
The company anticipates making nearly $9 million from the New York program in its first five years.
The cost of sending a single email message on a JPay tablet is 35 cents, officials said, with “bundle” discounts available.
“This month we will activate secure messaging, which are messages sent via a secure connection network through a kiosk in each facility and only to members of the public who have pre-registered to receive messages from a specific incarcerated individuals at the pilot facilities,” the state corrections spokesperson said. “The five facilities include our three female facilities and two youth facilities (Albion, Bedford, Taconic, Adirondack and Hudson). We continue the installation of kiosks at the remaining Correctional Facilities and anticipate statewide deployment by September of this year.”
JPay has been criticized for what inmate advocates call exploitative fees. The company charges credit card users a 2 percent fee when paying to bail out New York City prisoners online from jails like Rikers Island, and a 7.9 percent fee when paying bail in person. They also take a cut from deposits made to inmate accounts.
State officials said they have worked to lower costs for inmates using the JPay tablets.
“The Department has successfully negotiated changes to the rate structure which will result in additional savings to incarcerated individuals and their families that is currently pending review and approval by the Office of the State Comptroller,” the corrections spokesperson said.