Prison-tech company bribed jails to ban in-person visits

”The Bezzle” is everting.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readApr 2, 2024

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A black-and-white photo of a late 19th century French prison; prisoners crowd against the bars in the background while a guard stands in front of the cell, holding a rifle with a fixed bayonet. The guard’s has been tinted purple and head has been replaced with the glaring eye of HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ A mountain of jumbled, bundled US$100s crowd the bottom of the image. An ATM is superimposed on the bars. Image: Cryteria (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fi

I’m on tour with my new, nationally bestselling novel The Bezzle! Catch me in Boston (Apr 11) with Randall “XKCD” Munroe, Providence (Apr 12) and beyond!

Beware of geeks bearing gifts. When prison-tech companies started offering “free” tablets to America’s vast army of prisoners, it set off alarm-bells for prison reform advocates — but not for the law-enforcement agencies that manage the great American carceral enterprise.

The pitch from these prison-tech companies was that they could cut the costs of locking people up while making jails and prisons safer. Hell, they’d even make life better for prisoners. And they’d do it for free!

These prison tablets would give every prisoner their own phone and their own video-conferencing terminal. They’d supply email, of course, and all the world’s books, music, movies and games. Prisoners could maintain connections with the outside world, from family to continuing education. Sounds too good to be true, huh?

Here’s the catch: all of these services are blisteringly expensive. Prisoners are accustomed to being gouged on phone calls — for years, prisons have done deals with private telcos that charge a fortune for prisoners’ calls and split the take with prison administrators — but even by those standards, the calls you make on a tablet are still a ripoff.

Sure, there are some prisoners for whom money is no object — wealthy people who screwed up so bad they can’t get bail and are stewing in a county lockup, along with the odd rich murderer or scammer serving a long bid. But most prisoners are poor. They start poor — the cops are more likely to arrest poor people than rich people, even for the same crime, and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get convicted or be suckered into a plea bargain with a long sentence. State legislatures are easy to whip up into a froth about minimum sentences for shoplifters who steal $7 deodorant sticks, but they are wildly indifferent to the store owner’s rampant wage-theft. Wage theft is by far the most costly form of property crime in America and it is almost entirely ignored:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jun/15/wage-theft-us-workers-employees

So America’s prisons are heaving with its poorest citizens, and they’re certainly not getting any richer while they’re inside. While many prisoners hold jobs — prisoners produce $2b/year in goods and $9b/year in services — the average prison wage is $0.52/hour:

https://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2024/0324bowman.html

(In six states, prisoners get nothing; North Carolina law bans paying prisoners more than $1/day, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution explicitly permits slavery — forced labor without pay — for prisoners.)

Likewise, prisoners’ families are poor. They start poor — being poor is a strong correlate of being an American prisoner — and then one of their breadwinners is put behind bars, taking their income with them. The family savings go to paying a lawyer.

Prison-tech is a bet that these poor people, locked up and paid $1/day or less; or their families, deprived of an earner and in debt to a lawyer; will somehow come up with cash to pay $13 for a 20-minute phone call, $3 for an MP3, or double the Kindle price for an ebook.

How do you convince a prisoner earning $0.52/hour to spend $13 on a phone-call?

Well, for Securus and Viapath (AKA Global Tellink) — a pair of private equity backed prison monopolists who have swallowed nearly all their competitors — the answer was simple: they bribed prison officials to get rid of the prison phones.

Not just the phones, either: a pair of Michigan suits brought by the Civil Rights Corps accuse sheriffs and the state Department of Corrections of ending in-person visits in exchange for kickbacks from the money that prisoners’ families would pay once the only way to reach their loved ones was over the “free” tablets:

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2024/03/jails-banned-family-visits-to-make-more-money-on-video-calls-lawsuits-claim/

These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg; Civil Rights Corps says there are hundreds of jails and prisons where Securus and Viapath have struck similar corrupt bargains:

https://civilrightscorps.org/case/port-huron-michigan-right2hug/

And it’s not just visits and calls. Prison-tech companies have convinced jails and prisons to eliminate mail and parcels. Letters to prisoners are scanned and delivered their tablets, at a price. Prisoners — and their loved ones — have to buy virtual “postage stamps” and pay one stamp per “page” of email. Scanned letters (say, hand-drawn birthday cards from your kids) cost several stamps:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/14/minnesota-nice/#shitty-technology-adoption-curve

Prisons and jails have also been convinced to eliminate their libraries and continuing education programs, and to get rid of TVs and recreational equipment. That way, prisoners will pay vastly inflated prices for streaming videos and DRM-locked music.

The icing on the cake? If the prison changes providers, all that data is wiped out — a prisoner serving decades of time will lose their music library, their kids’ letters, the books they love. They can get some of that back — by working for $1/day — but the personal stuff? It’s just gone.

Readers of my novels know all this. A prison-tech scam just like the one described in the Civil Rights Corps suits is at the center of my latest novel The Bezzle:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250865878/thebezzle

Prison-tech has haunted me for years. At first, it was just the normal horror anyone with a shred of empathy would feel for prisoners and their families, captive customers for sadistic “businesses” that have figured out how to get the poorest, most desperate people in the country to make them billions. In the novel, I call prison-tech “a machine”:

a million-­armed robot whose every limb was tipped with a needle that sank itself into a different place on prisoners and their families and drew out a few more cc’s of blood.

But over time, that furious empathy gave way to dread. Prisoners are at the bottom of the shitty technology adoption curve. They endure the technological torments that haven’t yet been sanded down on their bodies, normalized enough to impose them on people with a little more privilege and agency. I’m a long way up the curve from prisoners, but while the shitty technology curve may grind slow, it grinds fine:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/02/24/gwb-rumsfeld-monsters/#bossware

The future isn’t here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Prisoners are the ultimate early adopters of the technology that the richest, most powerful, most sadistic people in the country’s corporate board-rooms would like to force us all to use.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/04/02/captive-customers/#guillotine-watch

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