There are precious few comforts available to those trapped within the American prison industrial complex, and the Department of Corrections' continuing push towards privatization means that even the scarce options currently available are becoming untenable for most folks behind the walls. In just one example, New Yorkers saw this happen in our own backyard earlier this year, when Gov. Cuomo attempted to implement a pilot program to privatize prison care packages—only to rescind it after a massive public outcry against the cruel proposal.
Further South, inmates in Florida—whose sprawling prison system is notoriously violent, and plagued by reports of racism—are being adversely affected by the state DOC's efforts to "modernize" their cages by striking a profit-driven deal with private company JPay to introduce multimedia tablets. Inmates there had had access to entertainment technology since 2011, when the DOC partnered with another private company, Access Corrections, to sell various models of mp3 players which incarcerated people could use to download songs (for $1.70 a pop). Now, they’ll have the opportunity to try out something new—but that opportunity comes at a hefty price.
As Ben Conarck of the Florida Times-Union reports, the main problem with these new tablets—besides the fact that they are going to be used to generate profit off the backs of the incarcerated and their loved ones—is that, in order to participate in the new tablet program, inmates will be forced to return the mp3 players that they had already bought, and will be unable to transfer over the mp3s they've already purchased to the new tablets. Sales of the Access Corrections mp3 players ended back in August 2017. Patrick Manderfield, spokesman for the DOC explained that the songs cannot be transferred because the “devices/services are provided by two different vendors.” Perhaps more interestingly, according Timothy Hoey, the assistant warden at Homestead Correctional Institution, “the download of content purchased from one vendor to another vendor’s device would negate the new vendor’s ability to be compensated for their services.”
The Florida DOC is effectively robbing its incarcerated population of music that they and their loved ones have already paid for, to the tune of $11.3 million ($1.4 million of which in commissions on song downloads and related sales has been collected by the DOC and sent to the state’s General Revenue fund since July 2011). (This number reflects the total amount of music purchased since the program's implementation in 2011.) Hundreds of incarcerated folks have flooded the DOC with complaints about the new system, but the DOC's response to the kerfuffle has been less than generous.
The Department suggests that inmates send their devices and music home if they want to keep them (after paying an additional $25 fee to unlock the mp3 player and download their music onto a CD), and points to a deal they'd made with Access Corrections to allow inmates to keep their devices if they choose not to participate in the tablet program. Bearing in mind that said tablet program is being touted as offering "educational opportunities" and a way to connect with their families, that's a difficult choice to make— between keeping one's possessions but being deprived of potentially useful technology, or giving up one of one's only sources of entertainment (and abandoning a significant financial investment) in favor of an unknown, profit-driven program.
The Department told inmates that they are “aware that family members over the years have provided funds to their loved ones to add music to their current MP3 player. It is unfortunate that the music cannot be transferred, however, we hope that overtime [sic] the family and the inmate will see the added value of the new program.”
"Unfortunate" is certainly one way to describe it. "Predatory and inhumane" is another, but welcome to another day in mass incarcerated America. With the upcoming August 21 national prison strike looming and this year’s Operation PUSH Florida prison strike fresh in their minds, one wonders how the incarcerated workers of Florida are feeling about this latest slight.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that inmates will lose $11.3 million of the music they have purchased, a number which did not account for the inmates who have left custody over the past seven years and were able to retain their MP3 players and music.