Companies like Jpay lobby hard to be the exclusive conduit for remittances from prisoners' families to the inmates, taking a huge rake off the top of funds sent to pay for essentials like warm clothes, medical care and food.
As America's increasingly privatized prisons turn to prisoners' families as income sources, prisoners are expected to pay for warm clothing, food, and other essentials, and Jpay and its competitors take up to 45% in processing fees, in some cases kicking back 50% to the prisons and jails themselves. That's in addition to lavish parties and awards that Jpay sponsors, not to mention its direct lobbying to Congress and state legislatures.
Funding prisons out of the pockets of families and inmates has non-financial costs too, says Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in an Illinois state prison for murder. Nelson says he has "become an asset to society" since he was released four years ago because he stayed in touch with family and priests even when he was in solitary confinement. When inmates can't afford to maintain contact with the outside world, he says, they are less equipped to transition smoothly to civilian life.
The effect on poor families is especially harsh, Nelson says: "It's a wife that has three children at home, and her husband is in jail, so now she has a choice: Do I send money to him so he can afford to stay in touch with the kids, or do I feed the kids?"
Inmates' need for money is inescapable, Nelson says. Those in northern Illinois are not issued cold-weather clothes, he says, leaving them vulnerable to frostbite unless they can get money to pay for prison-approved long underwear and boots.
Meet the Prison Bankers Who Profit From the Inmates [Daniel Wagner/Center for Public Integrity/Time]