The For-Profit Companies Charging Prisoners to Read Their Own Mail
More and more services in prisons are being taken over by private, profit-seeking companies squeezing inmates and their families for every penny they have.
According to The Sentencing Project, “Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 115,428 people in 2019, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population.” However, while private prisons still make up a minority of carceral institutions in the US, the infiltration of privatization has spread throughout the prison-industrial complex. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa speaks with Paul Wright about the dehumanizing practice of prisons digitizing mail, which allows for increased surveillance, and for profit-seeking companies to charge inmates and their families exorbitant fees to read mail on electric portals.
Paul Wright is the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. He is also editor of Prison Legal News (PLN), the longest-running independent prisoner rights publication in US history. Wright has co-authored three PLN anthologies: The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry; Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor; and Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Imprisonment.
Charles Hopkins: Welcome to this edition of Rattling The Bars. My name is Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. The Nation magazine published an article entitled “Why Prisons are Banning Letters” which outlines a current censorship trend that the prison-industrial complex is adopting. Here to talk about it is Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. Welcome Paul.
Paul Wright: All right. Thanks for having me on the show.
Charles Hopkins: Okay. Why is mail guard a danger to prison’s ability to communicate with their families and society?
Paul Wright: Well, basically what we’ve seen in the last 30 years is a massive increase in both censorship and surveillance of mail by prisoners. But the bigger thing has been the trend starting in the early ’90s about monetizing prisoners and their families. You have companies, specifically Securus, Global Tel Link and now another company is focusing on mail called Smart Communications or Smart Com, who, basically what they want to do is they want to monetize and make money off of every form of contact prisoners have with the outside world. And for decades, prisoners and their families have been paying outrageous rates for phone calls to stay in touch with their families. It hadn’t been uncommon for prisoners and their families to be paying up to $25 for a 20 minute phone call with loved ones. We’ve seen, we’ve had some success regulating that at the federal communications level.
One thing that’s happened is as we reign them in a little bit on the telephones, the companies look to diversify their revenues. And their business model is that every communication that a prisoner has with a loved one or a family member outside of prison, they want to be able to make money off of it. So they start offering video calling, and one way for video calls to work is by cutting off, restricting, or eliminating in-person visitation. Then they started moving into text messaging and emails where they charge outrageous rates for that. Most people accept free email as a part of life. Not in prison. These companies charge anywhere from $0.50 to $1 or more just to send a single email. But they’ve realized that for this to work, they need to cut off the free alternative, which is the government mail service.
What they’ve been doing with that is in the past couple of years now they’ve been starting this trend of basically banning letter mail from prisoners, to and from prisoners, and forcing people to send their mail to these processing centers where the letters are scanned in, digitized, and then either they’re sent to the prison and they’re printed out and delivered to the prisoner. Or the bigger trend is the prisoner gets it in an electronic form on a kiosk, and then the prisoner is charged to access the kiosk or the tablet to view their mail on or their letter on.
Same thing. When prisoners go to send mail out of the prison, their mail is then digitized as well. These are all things that these companies are doing to basically exploit and monetize prisoners and their families. The other thing that they’re really selling to the government is they’re creating vast surveillance databases. Smart Com boasts the fact that they claim they’re only going to keep the letters for seven years, but then in an interview their president or one of their managers said, we’ve actually never deleted a single letter. Once we have it in our database, we just hold onto it. Then they make these letters available to other law enforcement agencies without warrants, without any type of controls or anything like that.
I think these are all issues that… They’re happening. There’s no legislation about it. It’s just happening in back rooms. This is just another trend on the monetization of prisoners and their families where prisoners and their loved ones are basically seen as money making profit centers by these for-profit companies and their government collaborators
Charles Hopkins: Let me ask you this here. That’s a good point, let’s flesh that out. Who’s financing, other than the corporations, who else is financially benefiting from this? Who’s regulating them? Because as you just noted that they are monetizing the prison-industrial complex, they are monetizing that.
Paul Wright: Well, there’s no regulation. As far as who’s benefiting, I mean, the American police state, basically it’s widening its web of surveillance. As a society here in America, I mean, every email message we send is collected by the government through its Carnivore program, which is run by the FBI. All of our phone calls are recorded and monitored by the NSA. The post office records the outsides of all letters that transit through the mail system. Now this is just one step further of opening up the contents of the letter, digitizing them, storing them, and making them available for government surveillance and intelligence gathering throughout the mail system.
Eventually the goal of this is to, I think, eventually have all prisoner mail being scanned and digitized and making it digitally searchable. I think that’s what these companies are touting and that seems to be the trend that the government is moving forward and towards.
Charles Hopkins: Okay. In terms of what we are seeing, do you think that we are moving into a quasi-privatization of prisons, and that all the infrastructures of the prison services are being privatized? We know medical, visits and all those things that you have outlined?
Paul Wright: The overall trend. I mean, as far as the private prison companies, which at this point are mostly CoreCivic and Geo Corporation, they’re only controlling around 7% of the American prison population, but a lot of the sources around prisons have been privatized and outsourced. This includes the medical services, as you noted, money transfers. I think that one of the things that’s really critical about a lot of this stuff is that these are services that were previously performed by the government. Now they’re being performed by private for-profit corporations. At the end of the day, one of the promises of privatization, which has turned out to be a big lie, is that somehow taxpayers are going to benefit. And it may well be true that these companies can provide the same crappy, murderous services that the government does, but the taxpayers don’t see any type of relief or savings from it. They’re providing it cheaper. The only people that are benefiting are their shareholders and the owners of these companies.
But I think it’s important to distinguish there’s two types of prison privatization model, or how they make their money. One, is the government procurement or contracting model. That’s what companies like Geo and CoreCivic do. In other words, they sign contracts with the government for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, where they come in and say, we’ll run your prisons, we’ll cage your people, and we’ll take care of everything. But the government’s their customer. The legislators, the governor’s office, the president of the United States, Congress, these are the people that approve these contracts. These are the people that appropriate that money. I look at it that, if legislators or the public or Congress has a problem with it, they won’t sign the contracts.
At this point it is well established that these companies engage in a lot of fraud. They overcharge, they don’t provide the services they’re contracted to. But that said, the reason they keep these contracts going is they provide a lot of campaign contributions. They give money to politicians. We also know they engage in criminal bribery. They personally give money to the politicians that just pocket the money as criminal bribes. And they also do this to prison officials, both as criminal bribes. There’s also the cronyism factor where they hire a lot of these government prison officials, they all retire and a lot of them go to work for these same private prison companies. That’s one model of prison privatization.
The other one is where basically they’re not looking to make their money in profit off of the government, but rather they’re looking to monetize and profit off of prisoners and their families. These are the phone companies like Securus, Global Tel Link, some of the mail companies, the mail companies like Smart Com. They seem to be going back and forth between two models. On the one hand, they contract with the government where the government’s giving them millions of dollars. On the other hand, they’re also looking to monetize their services by charging prisoners and their family members. I think the one that monetizes prisoners and their family members is, in my view, in a lot of ways it’s far worse because the public, the prisoners, the families, they have no choice in this. Basically it’s some government bureaucrat who’s making the decision to give this monopoly contract to one of these companies. Again, we know the telephone companies and these other companies, we know they engage in criminal bribery.
They give criminal bribes to people. They also have a kickback model where they give money back to the government in exchange for these monopoly contracts. The people actually paying the bills have no choice in who chooses, who’s providing the service. They have no choice about the quality of the services being provided. They’re just stuck with it. And the government and these for-profit companies, nearly all of which are owned by hedge funds, just use prisoners and their families as a commodity to be monetized, profited off of, and exploited. That’s their goal, is to squeeze every last penny out of prisoners and their families as they can. Unfortunately, they’re pretty good at it.
Charles Hopkins: In that regard, what do we do? What do the prisoner population do in terms of finding redress? Because as you said, and as was noted in this article, the services are crappy. They digitize your mail, some of your mail comes in, [inaudible] the head of the photos is all, a lot of the things that you could have done such as the children, giving, sending drawings to their parents, they can’t get that. What do we have as prisoners? Do prisoners have any redress, a constitutional redress in this regard?
Paul Wright: So far they don’t. But one of the things to keep in mind is that the Constitution guarantees a right to free speech, and that also includes mail. And not just the prisoners, but also the senders of the mail have a right to send their mail, to send their mail and have it read and received. They also have a right to receive mail from prisoners. I think there are other issues too, is that there’s also a privacy right protected under the Fourth Amendment that says that the government’s not supposed to conduct unreasonable searches and seizures. And the wholesale mass digitization and data basing of people’s mail, we’re talking millions of letters every year for prisoners and their families around the country, that’s not contemplated by the constitution. I think that one of the things that we’re seeing is because this is still a relatively new area of law, we’re still seeing just a new area here in terms of how this is manifesting itself or what’s going to happen.
I think the legal challenges are still new. I think that one of the things that’s critical to note is that a lot of these prison privatization schemes are basically taking what used to be free government services and they’re slapping a price tag on it. A really good example is prison money services. 20 years ago, if you wanted to send money to someone in prison, you got a money order at the post office or a cashier’s check and you sent it, you mailed it to them in the prison or the jail they are being held at. It was added to their prison trust account so they could buy commissary or whatever. Starting around 17 or 18 years ago, a guy named Ryan Shapiro starts a company called Jpay and his thing is, hey, we’ll, we’ll do it electronically, but we’re going to charge 15 or 20% or more to do it. But then he also realizes that if people still have the option of sending money for free, they’re probably not going to use his service. So like everything else, these crappy services that exploit people and charge a lot of money for, they’ve realized that their business model can only succeed if they cut off the free government alternative.
In other words, if people can still send the mail, they’re probably not going to use the email or the messaging service. Some people will, but you know what? For 500 years you can buy a stamp at the post office, put it on an envelope, and pop it in the mail and it gets delivered. That’s about as American as you can get is using the postal service. These companies realize that to succeed and monetize their services and make a lot of money, they need to cut out that government provided alternative of the post office. Just like they’ve done with making sure prisoners can’t do video calls. Prisoners around the world can use video calling services like WhatsApp or Skype to communicate with their loved ones. In this country you’ve got to pay Securus or GTL a dollar a minute or more to use the same services with lower quality that just aren’t as good as prisoners and other countries are using for free. Again, like I say, this is the business model that these companies have come up with to exploit prisoners and their families.
Charles Hopkins: Like you said, they’re taking these free services and putting a monetary value on them—is there something that they can be doing to try and mobilize their families to get the legislators to get involved and enact laws or policies that could directly impact these bloodsuckers?
Paul Wright: We’re starting to see a little bit of progress. We’re starting to see a couple of cities like Rikers Island, the jail in San Francisco, and a couple others where they’re now providing prisoners with free phone calls. This is a new thing. I think, and there’s no reason these services shouldn’t be free, or at least not charged for, or at least prisoners and their family should not be the ones paying for them. That’s one trend and that’s actually happening. We have not yet seen it at the DOC level. Connecticut seems to be poised to become the first state in the country to provide free telephone services for prisoners. That hasn’t quite happened yet. But I think that one of the things is by pushing back and why are these services being… Why are prisoners being charged for these services, and their families?
I think one of the things to keep in mind, if you look at things in terms of a big picture, so many of these prison agencies have literally billion dollar budgets. Then you look at the amounts of money that they’re charging prisoners and their families, or they’re getting millions of dollars in kickbacks, which millions of dollars is a lot of money when it’s coming out of the pockets of the poorest people in America.
On the other hand, a couple million here and there for an agency that already has a multi-billion dollar budget, it’s beyond chump change. I mean, they spend more money than that on paper clips and Post-it Notes. But again, it seems almost like it’s an ideological fixation for a lot of legislators and the people who run prisons and jails to literally pillage every last penny they can out of prisoners and their families. Rather than looking at this as these are, or should be, government services that we provide to members of the public or that we provide to prisoners and their families as tools to reduce recidivism, to strengthen community ties, to make our society and our country safer and a better place. Instead, they look at how many pennies or how many dollars can we take out of the pocketbooks of our poorest citizens.
Charles Hopkins: To your knowledge, is any of the money that’s being taken out of prisons any with these disservices or so-called services, is any of the money being put back into the institution to help advance some of the things that you spoke about? Building community relationships or providing prisoners with opportunities to advance themselves prior to getting out?
Paul Wright: Yes. It varies from state to state, and a lot of states claim the kickbacks are going into so-called inmate betterment funds, offender welfare funds, or whatever they call it in that state. Some states the money just goes into the state’s general revenue account. In other words, the government is like, hey, it goes into our budget. Whether it’s paying for roads or cops or school lunches, that’s where it’s going. Then to the extent that a lot of these prisons and jails claim the money’s going to some offender betterment fund, that’s a big old lie, because the reality is when you start looking at what they use this money to pay for in places like Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Jail gets around $40 million a year in kickbacks from their phone revenues, and they’re using this money to do everything from pay for food – I mean, they have a legal obligation to feed the prisoners. They’re using $7 million of that money to pay for food. And you know the corruption’s there as soon as you see hundreds of thousands of dollars going to unspecified consultants. But then they use the money to pay for guard salaries, they use it to pay for tanks, for shotguns, squad cars, everything else. The claim is that they… And I think anyone that’s done time or knows anyone who’s done time in America, you know that prisoners are not really being given even a fraction of the services for the millions of dollars that are being peeled off the backs of prisoners and their families. You go to jails, they’re lucky if they got a basketball or two and a couple of sets of dominoes in the day room, and the jail’s getting millions of dollars in kickbacks. And part of the problem is that most of this money, it’s not regulated.
There are no controls on it. If the sheriff says, hey, I’m going to take my girlfriend and my cronies and we’re going to go on a ski trip to Aspen with the prisoners’ money. This is documented. They do this, and there’s nothing illegal about it. This is also one of the things that I think that people have to think about too, is the very anti-democratic nature of this type of slush fund money. I’m not aware of any other agency in government where private corporations are giving government officials millions of dollars with no accountability. Every other branch of government, if you need or want money to spend, you got to go to the legislature, the county commission, the treasurer, you got to go ask someone for that money and there are strings attached to it.
You don’t get to… The school superintendent can go ask for money from the county and then get the money and decide hey, I’m going to go buy a Rolls Royce and tool around town in it. Yet that’s exactly what happens with the so-called prisoner trust fund money or offender betterment funds, or again, whatever they call it. There’s no accountability, there’s no control over it.
Charles Hopkins: In terms of the prisoners that can’t afford to interact with mail gram, as we know that they got tabs that you have to pay for to get to read your mail. To your knowledge are they providing indigent prisoners with opportunities to interact or engage in this mail system? The visit system?
Paul Wright: I don’t know if that’s happening or not. I haven’t seen any reports on it one way or the other. I would like to think they would, but if the purpose is to make money, maybe not. I don’t know the answer to that question
Charles Hopkins: Okay. And closing out, Paul, what do you think we should be doing outside in terms of one, educating the public, and creating some type of direct action to get this regulated? Because it needs to be regulated. Like you said, it’s the only slush fund where millions of dollars can be handed out to people with no recourse or no kickback. What can we in society and the public be doing to try to get some kind of control over this?
Paul Wright: Well, part of the problem is I think that a lot of people that think that prison reform and jail reform are A, they also think the word reform is good or positive and that’s not true. I mean, most of what’s happened in this country regarding prisons and jails in the last 40 years is all bad or negative, at least as far as the prisoners are concerned and their families are concerned. The bigger thing is they also think that reform happens in legislatures, in Congress and places like that. But we’re seeing, with regards to telephone contracts, these mail policies, and stuff like that, this stuff is happening behind closed doors, contract by contract, county by county, prison system by prison system. And there’s no public input on this. It’s just the prisons and the jails are just rolling it out as, hey, we’re digitizing our mail. Take it or leave it. If you don’t like it, it’s tough to be you.
I think that this also goes to the bigger picture, I think, of a lack of any type of accountability or oversight of prisons and jails. If you start asking legislators hey, what type of oversight are you guys having over it? There really isn’t any. These are all kind of like major problems. I think just having some type of accountability, some type of oversight. But you know what? These institutions have been really good for decades at not having any of that and I just don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Charles Hopkins: Okay. Thank you, Paul, for joining me on this edition of Rattling the Bars. On behalf of Eddie Conway and myself, we thank everyone for listening and viewing this. We appreciate all the work that you are doing, Paul, it’s a great service that you’re providing to those of us inside. I definitely benefited from it when I was incarcerated. I read the Prison Law News and utilized a lot of the cases that came out of it to get redress. I think that’s the message that we want to leave for the prisoners that’s there and their family members is to take and seek redress by taking direct action. On behalf of Eddie Conway, myself, and The Real News, continue to support The Real News and continue to support Rattling The Bars. Thank you, Paul.
Paul Wright: Thank you. And I’d just like to add, if anyone who wants more information, go to our website, www.prisonlegalnews.org. That covers detention facility news and information. Our other magazine at www.criminallegalnews.org covers criminal law and procedure and what’s happening with the police and prosecutors as well. Thanks for having me on the show.