For companies like JPay, the business model is simple: Whatever it costs to send a message, prisoners and their families will find a way to pay it.

… Prisons are notoriously low-tech places. But urged on by privately owned companies, like JPay, facilities across the country are adding e-messaging, a rudimentary form of email that remains disconnected from the larger web. Nearly half of all state prison systems now have some form of e-messaging: JPay’s services are available to prisoners in 20 states, including Louisiana.

Inside prisons, e-messaging companies are quietly building a money-making machine virtually unhindered by competition—a monopoly that would be intolerable in the outside world. It’s based in a simple formula: Whatever it costs to send a message, prisoners and their loved ones will find a way to pay it. And, the more ways prisoners are cut off from communicating with their families, the better it is for business. Which means that stamp by stamp, companies like JPay—and the prisons that accept a commission with each message— are profiting from isolation of one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. And, with prisoners typically earning 20 cents to 95 cents an hour in jobs behind bars, the cost of keeping in touch most likely falls to family members and friends.

This year, Jones decided against choosing from the 24 electronic birthday card designs that JPay offers. Instead, she waited for her son to call, paying 21 cents a minute to JPay’s parent company Securus, which provides phone services to Louisiana’s prisons. “I just talked to him on the phone and cried,” she says.

JPay began in 2002 as a prison money-wiring service, offering a quicker alternative for families who wanted to mail a money order to incarcerated loved ones. The expediency came with a price: The fees for each transaction could be as high as $11.95. When JPay launched its e-messaging services in 2004, it pitched it as a way of fostering closer relationships between prisoners and the outside world. “Part of JPay’s mission is to provide technology…[that] empowers those individuals with access to educational tools and assists in their overall rehabilitation process,” says Jade Trombetta, JPay’s senior manager of brand marketing and social media. She declined to explain the reasoning behind JPay’s prices or price fluctuations. “We have nothing more to say on the matter,” she told WIRED.

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