At this point, it’s almost inevitable that brands will launch tone-deaf online campaigns built around a celebratory month: See last Pride Month’s displays from the likes of Raytheon and Spotify for proof. But two companies that exploit the limited access between incarcerated people and the outside world are taking things to a new level.
JPay and Securus Technologies are two communication services that charge money for exchanges like phone calls, text messages, video calls, and emails with incarcerated people. They’re major players in a $1.4 billion industry that explicitly exists to make money off of people in jails and prisons, along with anyone who wants to stay in contact with them: parents, grandparents, siblings, partners, children, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, pen-pals, advocates, lawyers, and journalists. And they have a message for all of those users: Happy Black History Month! In two emails sent out February 2, the companies each blasted a nearly identical email to their customers:
“Dear [Katie/Securus Customer],
To celebrate Black History month and help you stay connected with your incarcerated loved one, we've made every Tuesday during February a "Free Reply Tuesday!"
Also, enjoy new inspirational themed eCard designs!”
The email closed with instructions on how to claim the “free reply” offer, then both companies offered their “warmest regards.”
JPay’s fees vary across the 50 states it operates in, but in New York, sending a single email to or from prison costs between 17 and 25 cents, depending on how many “stamps” people buy at once. Using Securus, a single 15-minute call to an out-of-state facility can cost callers up to $3.75. While these fees might not sound like much, for families living below the poverty line and for prisoners with jobs who make pennies per hour, the cost of contact adds up fast—the prison communications industry has been widely criticized by prisoner advocacy groups for upcharging users desperate to stay in touch with their loved ones.
The population that these services supposedly service is disproportionately, undeniably Black. Because Black people are incarcerated at almost five times the rate that white people are, 40 percent of the people in jail and prisons are Black, and 63 percent of Black Americans have had an immediate family member incarcerated. Black people keep JPay and Securus afloat, and the tokens of appreciation JPay and Securus offer in return are customized eCards and three days of free replies—since the email didn’t even go out on February 1, the first Tuesday of the month.
This isn’t the first time these companies offered similar deals. You’d know that just from Securus’s email which, perhaps suggesting how little thought went into the promotion, included a little leftover copy in the Securus email touting its Veterans Day “Free Reply Thursday,” instead of the Black History Month “celebration” it was supposed to promote:
These comms services are also the only (legal) way to communicate with incarcerated people, any way other than snail mail or in-person—methods that frequent, uncontrolled COVID outbreaks in jails and prisons have rendered unreliable.
How else do JPay and Securus and the prison communication companies like them honor Black people all 365 days of the year? By recording calls between attorneys and their clients, which Securus was caught doing in 2015. By charging recently released people fees to access the money they earned while working in prison, which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined JPay for doing in 2021. And by generally making the lives of incarcerated Black people, and Black people who care about an incarcerated person, harder.
In short: “Happy Black History Month” from the parasites that get rich off the backs of Black people, both in and outside of thousands of jails, prisons, immigration detention centers, and other carceral facilities in the U.S. Warmest regards!
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.