Opinion | The Cost of Calling My Mom From Prison
Mom will probably die before I get out of prison. Her Parkinson’s has advanced over the years, so she can’t visit. Until recently, I’d accepted that I’d never see her again. But lately, she’s been sending me 30-second videos: Mom and Magic, her fat, one-eyed black cat, showing me love through the seven-inch screen of a tablet made by a service provider called JPay. It costs her about a dollar to send each message; to me, they are priceless.
In 2019, JPay, which is owned by the prison communications firm Securus Technologies, gave more than 40,000 prisoners in New York State correctional facilities free tablets. The company also installed kiosks where we sync our devices to send and receive emails (and videos) and download purchased music, games and movies. The tablets were free, but we have to pay fees, sometimes steep ones, to access content and communicate on them. They brought us into the 21st century. But now Securus is facing challenges.
On Dec. 20, 2020, Worth Rises, an advocacy group, ran a full page ad in The New York Times calling on Tom Gores, a businessman whose private equity firm owns Securus, to divest from the company. Beyond JPay, Securus owns phone contracts for many state prisons and county jails across the country. Charges can go up to $14 for a 15-minute call. Worth Rises opposes any private companies who seek to profit from incarceration. “If Black Lives Matter, what are you doing about Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores?” the ad asked, calling him a prison profiteer.
Several years ago, I interviewed Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, about her work campaigning against commercial interests in prisons. I appreciated her passion. I reached out to her again recently and told her that the JPay technology was pretty life-changing in here. No one but JPay was stepping up to provide us this access to technology, I said. Ms. Tylek told me that it was all pretty complicated. “There’s no doubt that there’s a technology gap in prisons and jails,” she said, “But the travesty here is that government agencies are allowing corporations with a long history of predation to fill this gap, largely because they get a cut of the profit and access to data.”
I don’t pretend to ignore that Securus has some pretty indefensible pricing practices. But while its phone contracts have long stirred controversy, its JPay tablet program offers a window to the world, a tool to teach us, inspire us, to build a network and career and even earn income while in prison.
In 2001, I was a drug dealer and shot and killed a man in Brooklyn. I was 24 with a 9th grade education and wound up with 28 years to life. I’ve been in over 19 years. Today I’m a contributing editor for Esquire. Years ago in Attica, I learned my craft in a creative writing workshop. Until recently, I’d use a typewriter with a 7,000 character memory while listening to cassettes on my Walkman. I’d use snail mail or dictate timely pieces to my editors over the phone in the prison yard.
When the tablets came in a couple years ago, I could cut and paste. I had email. I started pitching more pieces, hitting more deadlines, doing more back and forth editing with colleagues like I’m doing right now in my cell, thumb-tapping a revision of this piece while jamming to my playlist.
Because of Covid-19, we’ve been on lockdown in New York’s prisons. Visits are suspended. We are in our cells 23 hours a day. In my facility, we get one hour of rec, eight people at a time in the cellblock common area, to shower, to use the phone, to sync our tablets on the kiosk.
Worth Rises argues that one in three families go into debt taking care of their incarcerated loved ones (though not all of that is spent on communication), and most of those carrying that burden are women of color. We on the inside need to bear some personal responsibility and make better choices. If our families are struggling, we should make fewer, shorter calls.
But Securus doesn’t exactly play fair, either. The company charges us egregious fees to put money into our prepaid phone accounts: My brother refills mine for me, and gets charged several dollars for every $50 he puts in — the maximum he can transfer in a single transaction. It’s my money, earned from freelancing, but it’s still a hassle for him. The transaction looks so irregular that Visa often emails my brother to see if his credit card was stolen. A spokeswoman from Securus wrote in an email, “Securus Technologies is working to make the tools incarcerated Americans and their loved ones use to stay connected as affordable and accessible as possible.”
Securus has provided a lot of free calls and JPay messages to incarcerated people in New York during the pandemic. We’re grateful for that and for Worth Rises’ advocacy.
The system is far from perfect. But without Securus, who will offer the same tablet technology and infrastructure? Not the government or nonprofits, at least so far. Though even Mr. Gores said in an interview last week, “I think this industry really should be led probably not by private folks. I think it probably should be — I’ll get killed for saying this — but the nonprofit business, honestly.”
Ms. Tylek told me there is a tech nonprofit called Ameelio that is close to offering incarcerated people a communications product. But I don’t know if a service that is not driven by profit will be sustainable.
I argue that there is room for compromise. It’s important to understand how Securus technology has changed our lives. The best way to do that is for the company to hire incarcerated people, some of whom are brilliant and business-minded, as consultants. That would enable more people to earn income while incarcerated, as well.
The truth is, we are consumers in prison. I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times in print, for example, which costs me hundreds of dollars a year. Because the paper is pricey, I’m the only one who gets it and there’s always a line in the cell block to read it after me. I love print — the texture, the smell — and wish I had the option to subscribe on my tablet at the discounted digital rates available to the general public. Currently, we can only access news through an aggregated Associated Press news feed on JPay. According to a spokeswoman with Securus, the tablets don’t offer traditional WiFi access to news sites because of “security purposes.”
For now, at least, JPay gives us a crucial tether to our loved ones on the outside. I download a video message from Mom. Parkinson’s has progressed, contorting her movements and expressions. I smile and cry. “Come here, Magic. Let’s tell Johnny we love him.”
John J. Lennon is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a contributing editor for Esquire. He’s currently incarcerated in Sullivan Correctional Facility.
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