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Captive Audience: How Florida's Prisons and DRM Made $11.3M Worth of Prisoners' Music Disappear

Published: August 10, 2018
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The Florida Department of Corrections is one of the many state prison systems that rely on private contractors to supply electronic messaging and access to electronic music files and books for prisoners.

For seven years, Florida’s prisoners have bought music through Access Corrections, a company that took in $11.3 million selling songs at $1.70 each—nearly twice what the typical song costs on the marketplaces available to people who aren’t incarcerated. This is hardly exceptional: prisons also charge extremely high rates for phone calls. The FCC briefly capped this at $1/minute (much higher than normal calling rates), only to have the Trump FCC abandon the policy rather than fight a court challenge.

Florida prisoners used Access Corrections’ $100 MP3 players to listen to their music purchases and access their other digital files. But the Florida Department of Corrections has terminated its contract with Access Corrections in favor of the notorious industry-leader Jpay, a company that once claimed ownership of inmates’ correspondence with their families, and had inmates who violated the company’s lengthy terms of service punished with solitary confinement, and who became notorious for selling digital postage stamps to prisoners who want message their loved ones (prisoners need to spend one “postage stamp” per “page” of electronic text, and the price of postage stamps goes up around Mother’s Day).

(Jpay is a division of Securus, a company notorious for selling and even giving away access to US and Canadian cellphone location data, without a warrant, and without notice to the tracked individuals.)

Neither Jpay nor Access Corrections have offered prisoners any way to move their music purchases from the old devices to the new ones. Prison rules ban prisoners from owning more than one device at a time, so even if prisoners wanted to keep their Access Corrections devices without the ability to buy new music, they’d do so at the cost of not being able to use a Jpay device, which would severely curtail their access to correspondence with family members, in addition to cutting off access to reading material, educational materials, and other electronic resources.

There is no technical reason why the files can’t be transferred: the decision to prevent prisoners from keeping the music they bought at a steep markup is a purely commercial one. It may just be a coincidence that Jpay stands to earn fresh millions from prisoners re-purchasing their music, and that the prison system stands to earn millions more in commissions, but whatever the reason, the whole thing is manifestly unfair, and imposes millions in costs on the struggling—and innocent—families of incarcerated people.

The Florida Department of Corrections is already earning record sums from Jpay, taking a cut every time a prisoner’s family pays to transfer money into the prisoner’s Jpay account. The music-repurchasing bonanza that will follow the Jpay switchover represents an especially lucrative windfall for the department: under the terms of its Jpay deal, excess cash generated by the program goes straight to the department’s budget (under the old Access Corrections deal, the excess went to the Florida general treasury).

With the incentives thus aligned, the Florida Department of Corrections and Jpay are poised to convert their captive population of prisoners into cash cows, to be milked for every penny their families can spare.

The Jacksonville Times-Union’s Ben Conarck has a detailed look at the deal, including excerpts from the hundreds of prisoner grievances that have been raised since the deal was announced. Conarck’s reporting paints a dystopian picture of how proprietary technologies and official corruption can combine to create an inescapable system of control.

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