Days later, the card was returned. Puzzled, she called the prison where she learned the facility had instituted a prohibition on greeting cards. If she wanted to send a card, a prison official told her, Jones would have to pass along her greeting electronically using JPay , a company bringing email into prison systems across the nation.Prisons are notoriously low-tech places. But urged on by privately owned companies, like JPay, facilities across the country are adding e-messaging, a rudimentary form of email that remains disconnected from the larger web. Nearly half of all state prison systems now have some form of e-messaging: JPay’s services are available to prisoners in 20 states, including Louisiana.
On the surface, e-messaging seems like an easy and efficient way for families to keep in touch—a quicker 21st century version of pen-and-paper mail. Companies like JPay cover the price of installing the systems; prisons pay nothing. And, the argument goes, closer family connections are a win-win for prisons and inmates. “Maintaining a positive network of support is really important to their future success when they rejoin the community,” says Holly Kramer, a communications representative for the Michigan Department of Corrections, which has contracted with JPay since February 2009. “Electronic messaging can help facilitate that.”
In the outside world there are numerous companies offering free email accounts—Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Mail.com—but inside prisons companies charge a fee, a token JPay calls a “stamp,” to send each message. Each “stamp” covers only one page of writing. Want to send photos of a nephew’s graduation, a niece’s prom dress or a new baby? Each picture costs an additional stamp. A short video clip? That’ll be three stamps. With the postal service, stamp prices are fixed, but JPay’s stamp prices fluctuate. Shortly before Mother’s Day, for instance, a stamp cost 35 cents; the price rose to 47 cents the following week. For a few hundred dollars, prisoners can skip kiosk lines by buying a tablet—a relatively expensive purchase that tends to lock them into JPay’s services.