I’ve been penpal-ing (by email) with a trans woman in an Idaho prison named Jennifer. I was connected to her by the Trans Empowerment Project’s Inmate Advocacy Project. It’s been a lovely and eye-opening experience.
I’ve always kind of known that communicating with prison inmates comes at a cost to families. But until I started communicating with someone in prison, I had no idea of the extent of the pay-to-play aspect of being locked up.
To send emails back and forth, we have to go through a company called JPay, headquartered in Miramar, Florida. Each email costs from 30 to 40 cents, depending on how many “stamps” (emails) you can afford to buy. Of course, the fewer you can afford to buy at one time, the more the “stamps” cost.
And since Jennifer is, you know, in prison, I pay for the return email too. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to reply because the girl has no money. So each back-and-forth exchange we have costs me $0.60.
Sixty cents might not seem like a lot, but bear in mind that we go back and forth just about every day, sometimes more than once, so it’s about $20 a month. Again, $20 is not a lot of money, but it is a lot of money to send emails. I don’t pay Google that much for three business email accounts that we can use as much as we want. It’s some gougey shit.
She could read and reply to my emails (and buy and listen to music) on a groovy tablet that she could carry around with her and use at her leisure. If only she had $106 to buy it. Which she doesn’t because, as we’ve established, the girl has no money.
The inflated email fees are only the tip of the filthy grey iceberg. If we want to talk on the phone, a different company gets paid, ICSolutions in San Antonio, Texas. (Gee, people in Florida and Texas created companies to screw inmates; imagine that. 🙄) We haven’t talked yet, but she’s said she’d like to. ICSolutions charges $1.20 for a 15-minute call. You know, like it’s 1980, and every area code is a long-distance call.
Imagine your child or spouse was in prison, and you want to talk every day and even a little longer on some days. That would set you back $40 a month. For some lousy 15-minute calls. Add daily emails to that, and now it’s $60 a month.
To send her money she can spend in prison, there’s yet another company, Access Corrections, or Keefe Commissary Network out of St. Louis, Missouri. To send $100 to an inmate through that service, there’s a $9.45 fee. Almost ten percent! How is that legal?
Again, imagine it’s your child or spouse, and you want to send $100 a month (I don’t know if that’s enough, but let’s say it is). Add that to the emails and the calls, and you’re up to around $170 a month.
Now imagine they’re going to be in jail for five years.
This is all objectively vile, but it gets worse when you consider the monetary incentive is only there if you can lock up poor people. It’s not profitable to arrest and temporarily jail people who can afford to get themselves out. The profit is in those who can’t afford to get out.
And the network of companies that profit off people being locked up now includes many of the prisons themselves. Private companies build and operate prisons, and the state or federal governments pay those companies to keep people behind bars. It’s a Prison Industrial Complex.
Why did we, as a country—as human beings—allow that to happen?
That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is Republicans. Well, the answer is actually rich people, but rich people need Republican politicians to set the political and legislative table for them. They started the privatization of the “justice” system (and the military) a long time ago. They’ve been patient and relentless, and now private companies provide many of the services governments traditionally provided.
Does the privatization of our prison systems benefit us as citizens? It does not. It benefits the companies that conned the state and federal governments into relying on them and paying them literal mountains of money. Forever. Because now we’re stuck with them. States where the reliance on private prisons is high probably couldn’t build or manage new prisons anymore.
And they’re not finished with the takeover. These companies are coming for your local police force, too. Your kids or your grandkids could live in a country where the police and the jailers are private companies. Maybe the same private companies.
What could possibly go wrong?
I feel like I should admit that I bought a tablet for Jennifer (but she has to wait 45 business days—9 weeks—for delivery). I had no intention of sending her anything but emails. I really didn’t. And she didn’t ask me to buy it. We were talking about music, and she told me that she didn’t have access to music, “only the music in my head.” As someone who loves music, that really got to me. What could I do?
Before I bought it, I asked Ayin if I was a sucker for spending the money. That sounds cynical, and it probably is. I still have one and a half cynical bones in my body. And I know that people in prison aren’t always, let’s say, completely honest about everything. Ayin’s good advice was to make sure Jennifer was safe and that having something like that wouldn’t make her a target (she is, so it won’t).
But it occurred to me that it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m being exploited by an inmate (I don’t think I am 🙃). I’m doing this to try to be a connection to the outside world for a trans woman trapped in a men’s prison. If there’s a financial cost to that support, I shouldn’t hesitate to pay it, should I? A hundred dollars here and there isn’t going to cause me any hardship. And anyway, how much is it worth to provide her a small amount of support and comfort in there? I think it’s worth a lot more than I’m laying out.
If I put myself in her shoes…Well, I can’t even do that. I wouldn’t presume. But I know it isn’t easy.