BROOKLYN, NY (Workers World Today) — The United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, despite only accounting for 5 percent of the world’s total population. This massive number of prisoners is a result of a justice system that needs remodeling and updating. In its current state, the justice system is expensive and does little to help rehabilitate felons and ex-convicts.
According to a 2017 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice reform, the cost of incarceration is $182 billion every year. Previous reports claimed the cost was almost $100 billion cheaper, but the Prison Policy Initiative report took into consideration additional costs that weren’t previously included. These costs included all the policing and court costs and the costs paid by families to support incarcerated loved ones.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system, half of the yearly cost of incarceration goes to paying staff working for the correctional system. The staff is an influential lobby against criminal justice reform — their jobs depend on mass incarceration.
There are other people profiting from the legal system. Phone companies that charge families for talk time — up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call — are an example.
JPay, which provides technology-based services to inmates, is one company that profits heavily from the United States’ massive prison population. The company got its foot in the business in 2002 by offering electronic money transfers to incarcerated individuals. This made it easier for families to put money in prisoners’ accounts. In 2013, just from the money transfers alone, JPay made $50 million in revenue. Therefore, the larger the prison population, the more profitable business is for companies like JPay.
In February, JPay announced it would be providing all New York state inmates with tablets. These tablets would allow inmates to read e-books, listen to music and email family members while in prison. JPay expected to make $8.8 million from the tablets over five years. The tablets were given free of charge to inmates and New York state wouldn’t profit at all from them, but JPay would be making the bulk of its money from micro-transactions on the tablets themselves.
To send emails, inmates would have to purchase stamps, with one stamp costing $0.35 and permitting an inmate to send an email consisting of up to 5,000 characters. Sending photos and other attachments cost extra stamps as well. Prisoners could buy stamps in bundles to save on overall cost. Other transactions were also monetized, such as songs, albums, games, movies, eBooks and audio books.
Starting on July 16, JPay also implemented a state-wide system for transferring money, making it easier than before. Money transfers like this are a huge source of JPay’s revenue.
According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s July factsheet, the recidivism rate for releases was 42.6 percent and the recidivism rate for paroles was 51.9 percent for 2012 releases. The report allowed a three-year span from release to obtain the data. These rates show how difficult reentry into society can be for ex-convicts.
Looking at how JPay operates, it would be beneficial to have a larger prison population to generate more revenue — having higher prisoner return rates could also be helpful to JPay’s business model.
JPay’s system is not as secure as it could be. Recently, hundreds of Idaho inmates took advantage of a vulnerability in JPay’s tablets to credit themselves with a combined total of $225,000. Although some of the credits have been rescinded, JPay is still being compensated for the losses.
“This conduct was intentional, not accidental,” Jeff Ray, a spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Correction, said in a statement. “It required a knowledge of the JPay system and multiple actions by every inmate who exploited the system’s vulnerability to improperly credit their account.” While the inmates take criticism for exploiting the technology of JPay, they are being exploited by a system that profits from their incarceration.
Although JPay aims to make inmates’ stays easier, the company makes money off the incarcerated and could do more to make inmates’ reentry into the community easier.
One program that has shown promising results is the Arches Transformative Mentoring Program directed at youths ages 16 to 24 on probation. According to an evaluation of the program, participants had a 69 percent lower recidivism rate within 12 months of starting their probation. Each participant is assigned a mentor to work one-on-one with. The mentor is someone who has gone through the criminal justice system or someone who has a relatable background to the participant.
This program is one of the ways that released prisoners are being helped ease back into their communities, but more like it need to be implemented. Lawmakers need to change laws to change stigma against released prisoners; holding the brand of a convict makes it hard to find work and housing.
While companies like JPay profit off the backs of incarcerated individuals, other initiatives seek to help members of this marginalized community get back on their feet. These are the kinds of programs and initiatives needed. With high rates of recidivism and incarceration in the United States, serious reforms are needed to make it easier to transition from the prison system back into society.