Everything that I have access to is controlled in this environment. I’m told what I can and can’t do, and when I can and can’t do it. I’m told when I can go outside, when I can shop at commissary, eat in the chow hall, go to sleep, and even who I’m allowed to have visits with. The list is long.
The same is true for the things I’m allowed to possess and where I can order personal items from. I can possess a limited quantity of clothing, such as six pairs of socks, five t-shirts, 1 towel, three pairs of shirts, and so forth. I can’t order from places like Amazon or Walmart, not even if it’s for the items I’m allowed to have. Everything is sourced from pre-approved vendors from across the country such as Access, Walkenhorsts, or Union Supply. These companies specialize in providing pre-approved products to inmates through lucrative custom state contracts. Corrections departments across the country rely on contracts with companies like these for their kick backs in order to fill budget gaps and help fund operations.
Every year each vendor puts out a catalog of products that have been screened and pre-approved by the department of corrections.
Through these catalogs or through friends and family ordering online, I can order food items and sundry items. Prices are high, as is most every product or service inmates have access to in This World. If you haven’t already, click on the links I’ve provided to Access, Walkenhorsts, and Union Supply, and take a look at their sites and product offerings and prices to get a better idea. These three companies serve inmates in nearly all 50 states and are big business in the world of corrections. Each state, like Ohio, contracts with vendors such as these for a custom offering of products. For example, a number of the products that California inmates are allowed through these vendors are prohibited by Ohio, and the same is true for Ohio inmates, some of what we are allowed California inmates are not. These companies literally print custom catalogs based on their agreements, and they create customized online ordering for every state. The links I’ve provided are for the state of Ohio.
Each order is called a “box.” So, a food order is called a “food box,” and a sundry order is called a “clothes box.” The number of food and clothes boxes inmates are allowed to order in a calendar year is based upon one’s security level. The lower your security level, the more boxes you are allowed to have. Food and clothes boxes are viewed by the Department of Corrections as a privilege.
Then there are electronic services. Two major companies in the United States have near monopoly status making money off the backs of inmates and their families. They are JPay, a company owned by Securus Inc. based in Florida, and GTL, a nationwide services company that makes the majority of its money by offering collect call services for inmates and county jails and state prisons. Rates for calls range from $.05 to several dollars per minute for local calls, with long distance calls within the United States costing upward of $20.00 for 15 minutes.
In recent years, GTL has branched out into the ever more lucrative area of inmate services by offering free 10″ Android tablets and custom developed services. Services include email, streaming music and movies, to app based telephone services. Email requires me to purchase a pay package to send and receive emails ($2.50-$12.00); streaming music is from a custom Pandora offering ($8.00-$27.00/month) with all edited songs; and the streaming movies ($8.40 for 48 hours) are from a custom GTL library of several hundred PG-13 or less movies. None of the movies are new releases, with most being several years to decades old.
Prices are very high, but here in This World, GTL mints money off of these services. Why? Because something like streaming music and movies, even if they are censored and old, are great privileges in a world where boredom is king.
JPay has similar offerings as that of GTL with one key exception. The quality of their services are poor and their customer service is the worst imaginable. JPay frequently sells apps, music, and videos to us that will not download or that they don’t even carry anymore. They then stall, lie, or outright refuse to refund your money when you contact customer services for assistance. I know this sounds incredible, but it’s true nonetheless.
I write these posts on a 3rd Generation 7″ Android tablet sold to me by JPay for $140.00.You could buy this same tablet at Walmart for $30.00, that is, if they sold something as outdated as this. JPay has contracts to provide “free” tablets to inmates.
Poor services aside, I can purchase app based games, daily AP news, non-streaming music, email services, e-books (but not what you think; I’ll explain in a second), self-help videos, short funny internet-sourced animal and fail videos, and a small selection of standard accessories like chargers and headphones.
Most of the apps can be had for free on the internet, but JPay charges prisoners $1.99 to $9.99 for each; AP daily news which is free on the internet is $5.50 per month; e-books are simply text files of copyright expired works dating from 1750-1915, and recreated through a University of California project and offered open source on the internet (JPay charges $.99 for each “e-book”); music costs $1.07 for older classic songs and $1.99 + tax for top 40 tracks, and 15-25 minute funny animal or ‘fail’ videos from the internet range between $2.99 and $3.99. Email allows me to send and receive email provided I purchase a “stamp” package (each email costs a “stamp” to send, in this case a fee of $.20 to $.50), and I can send 30 second videos for $.60 to $1.60 each.
There are limited numbers of free downloads, most of which are sourced from places like Khan Academy (in my opinion, the best “service” that JPay offers), NASA (awesome space exploration videos), the University of California (videos on the Galapagos), and my favorite of them all: the 70-video Big History course funded by Bill Gates. If you aren’t familiar with this one already, Google it now and check it out. It’s awesome.
When I started my sentence, the prevailing public attitude was “lock’em up and throw away the key,” and the most high-tech item we were allowed were cassettes and cassette players. I never thought I’d see CD’s and CD players, and then one day we had them, and I remember thinking we’ll never have MP3 and MP3 players, and then one day we had them.And of course, I never imagined we’d be allowed 10″ tablets and limited internet access and well….
Ohio is one of a growing number of states that has moved toward companies like JPay and GTL. Across the nation, the pendulum is currently swinging toward rehabilitation rather than punishment, a cycle that travels through extremes about every 20 years. By providing inmates tablets and access to limited internet services, and all that comes with modern day media, the hope is that it assists with rehabilitation and the transition back to free society. I have experienced this slow movement of the pendulum firsthand over the past two decades, and I can say with certainty that exposing inmates to these services and devices while they are incarcerated definitely assists with the rehabilitative process.
How so? Inmates are able to stay in easy communication with family, which in turn helps to build, solidify, and maintain strong family relationships. Inmates have access to a number of free electronic educational services (like Khan Academy and the Big History courses I mentioned earlier), and at some institutions your personal tablet allows you to access your educational work elsewhere within the institution where you may be working a trade or college program. Educational offerings vary from state to state, but in short, they are beneficial to rehabilitation.
Then there are the casual electronic services, such as streaming music, relaxing or entertaining videos, movies, etc., and these too are beneficial. When guys are watching a movie, they aren’t out on the yard hanging around, grouped up with guys who are looking for their next high or getting into mischief. When you have access to the things that please you, your stress level is down and you are more likely to focus your attention on productive efforts and situations. When you are occupied with productive media you are not spending your time in unproductive, rehabilitation stunting ways. Finally, becoming familiar with modern tech in the day to day world while your are incarcerated helps to breed a familiarity that, once released, eases the transition back to free society.
Of course, there’s a flip side to all of this. It costs money. A lot of money. Those inmates who don’t have access to outside funds or who don’t have institutional jobs that pay enough to be able to enjoy these few services don’t benefit nearly as much as those who do. Despite this, it’s my observation that companies like JPay and GTL, with their “free” tablets, loan shark high prices, and dismal customer services, have an overall net positive benefit with regard to rehabilitation. And, rehabilitation is the key to breaking the cycle of crime.
Even if you can’t afford it.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.