Why would a company give free tablets to prisons for inmate use?

Spoiler alert: to steal from prisoners and their families.

Jpay has signed a contract with the New York Department of corrections to supply tablets to 52,000 inmates, for free. Jpay is pursuing a platform strategy: give something away that locks in users, then charge over the odds for services built on the platform. Except in this case, the users are literally locked in, behind bars.

How will Jpay make money on the carceral platform strategy? By charging $0.35 for "electronic postage stamps" to use the prisoners' messaging service, a fake, hobbled version of email that lets prisoners contact their loved ones. By gouging on financial fees — jacking the cost of sending money to an incarcerated loved one from $0.10 to $3.15-$4.15. Prisoners who have a positive balance in their accounts when they get released don't get cash refunds — they get predatory debit cards that charge outrageous fees (including a fee just to check the balance!). Also: gouging for ebooks, videos, and music.

Jpay is a division of Securus, last seen around these parts as the notorious prison telephone monopolist that was gouging prisoners' families for phone calls.

Needless to say: you are way more likely to be imprisoned if you are poor, and you are way more likely to be poor if you aren't white. Prisoners who are cut off from their families have a harder time reintegrating on release and are more likely to end up back behind bars. Access to media, family and the outside world are all fundamental to even the pretense of rehabilitation.

There is a standard path that abusive technology takes through our society: first it is applied to prisoners and/or asylum seekers; then to people in mental institutions, then to people on benefits, then to students, then to blue-collar workers, then to white collar workers.

The platform strategy — which has emerged from a tiny racket for extracting rent from games companies and gamers by locking early consoles into proprietary media — has emerged as the dominant form of rent-seeking in the 21st century. It's the strategy behind the printer ink racket, Audible's DRM for audiobooks, behind Apple's DRM for Iphone apps, for GM's lock-in for diagnostic info, and, more broadly, for any system that uses technological countermeasures and trade secrets, anti-hacking laws, and copyright laws to lock users into consumables, parts, service, or apps.

Remember, if dishwashers were Iphones, you'd have to buy your dishes from the manufacturer's "approved partners," and anyone who modified their dishwashers to wash unauthorized dishes would be accused of tempting food-borne illnesses and a lack of respect for the "thoughtful design and engineering" that allowed a giant multinational to "revolutionize kitchen sanitation."

These provisions explain how JPay expects to make almost $9 million in five years from a contract that is free to the state: by selling profitable, fee-laden services against "complementary" products like tablets.

New York state legislators never bothered to solve this mystery, but it's ironic how close some of them got. Take Republican Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who demanded: "If it's this easy to encourage vendors to provide free tablets to inmates, why aren't they being provided to our students?" The answer, as columnist Erica Bryant points out, is that students would never purchase a fake "stamp" to send an email to their parents.

Companies like JPay are offering "free" tablet programs to a growing number of states, and legislators should approach these offers with caution. You don't need an advanced degree to find the hidden costs in New York's "no-cost" contract. The trick is looking not only at taxpayer costs, but also at the exploitation of incarcerated people and their families.

How to spot the hidden costs in a "no-cost" tablet contract [Wanda Bertram and Peter Wagner/Prison Policy]

(via Naked Capitalism)