A technology that, until recently, was new in prisons and jails has exploded in popularity in recent years. Our review found that, despite its potential to keep incarcerated people and their families connected, e-messaging has quickly become just another way for companies to profit at their expense.
By Mike Wessler
Over the last twenty years, advocates and regulators have successfully lowered the prices of prison and jail phone rates. While these victories garnered headlines and attention, the companies behind these services quietly regrouped and refocused their efforts. Seeking different ways to protect their profits, they entered less-regulated industries and offered new products to people behind bars. One new service in particular — text-based electronic messaging or “e-messaging” — has experienced explosive and unregulated growth. As a result, rather than living up to its potential as a way to maintain connections between people in prison and the outside world — something that benefits all of us — high costs and shoddy technology have made e-messaging little more than the latest way these companies drain money from incarcerated people and their loved ones.
In 2016, we released a groundbreaking report that took a first look at e-messaging, sometimes — but incorrectly — called “email.” At that time, the technology was experimental, untested, and viewed skeptically by many correctional administrators. Since then, though, it has become common inside prison walls.
To better understand this explosive growth in e-messaging, we examined all 50 state prison systems, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), to see how common this technology has become, how much it costs, and what, if anything, is being done to protect incarcerated people and their families from exploitation. We found an industry that is in flux, expanding quickly, and has yet to face the legislative and regulatory oversight it desperately needs.
The explosive growth of e-messaging in prisons
When we looked at e-messaging in 2016, the technology was relatively new, having broached the walls of only a handful of prisons and jails nationwide. Today, we’ve found that at least 43 state prison systems and the BOP offer some electronic messaging option.
Like most prison communications services, e-messaging is dominated by just a few corporations. One company has established a particularly firm grasp on this market: Securus, under its “JPay” brand. The company serves half of the prison systems that offer e-messaging, holding contracts in 22 states. The other dominant company in the space, Global Tel*Link (GTL), which recently rebranded to ViaPath, provides e-messaging for fifteen prison systems.2 These two companies dominate more than 81% of the prison e-messaging market. The third most common e-messaging provider is CorrLinks, developed and owned by Advanced Technologies Group, LLC (part of the private-equity-owned Keefe Group family of correctional vendors).
Tablets are the new “it thing.”
In the early days of the technology, incarcerated users often had to wait in line to use a shared computer (or “kiosk”) to read or send electronic messages. Now messaging is commonly part of a computer tablet package, where each incarcerated user is either assigned their own tablet or checks one out for a set period of time. In terms of usability, this is good news (no one should have to write a letter home with a line of impatient people waiting behind them). But serious questions about the economics of tablet programs remain. These tablets are often touted as “free” but, in reality, are rife with hidden costs. The Covid-19 pandemic has been an economic boon for the companies that operate these programs, yet as tablets become more common, the companies providing them continue their relentless push to monetize every aspect of incarcerated peoples’ communications, reading, listening to music, and formal education. There are also grave privacy concerns when one company controls all communications channels to which incarcerated people have access.
Prices are down…sort of
The per-message price of sending an electronic message appears to have inched down since 2016. Unfortunately, some companies have found new ways to maximize their profits while hiding the actual cost of the service.
In our 2016 survey, the typical cost of sending a message was roughly the cost of a first-class postage stamp (at the time, a stamp was 49¢). We’ve previously explained that the price of a stamp has nothing to do with the cost of providing electronic messaging services, so there is little justification for tying the two products together. The costs to the company when an incarcerated person sends a message should be nearly nothing considering it requires no paper or staff labor, and the many other ways the companies already make up the cost of providing their so-called “free” tablets. Fortunately, linking the price of an e-message to the cost of a stamp has become less prevalent.3
Today, our rate survey found the cost to send an e-message ranges from being free in Connecticut 4 to a high of 50¢ in Alaska and Arkansas, with prices most often between 27¢ to 30¢. This wide range suggests that prices are not tied to the actual costs companies incur to transmit a message but rather set at the point that will maximize profits.
Bulk-pricing schemes are common, confusing, and harm the poorest people
A frequent tactic used by companies is “bulk-pricing.” About half of the states that offer electronic messaging include bulk-pricing schemes, where customers pay a higher cost unless they prepay for larger blocks of messages. This method has two primary problems: First, it often results in people buying large packages of messages they may never use, ultimately wasting their money. Second, it charges the poorest people in prison — people who can only afford a small number of messages at a given time — the most money.
For example, in Alaska, if someone has the money to purchase 40 messages at once, they’ll pay $14 or 35¢ per message. However, if they can only afford one message at a time, they’ll pay 50¢ per message — a roughly 43% price increase.
Bulk pricing structures like these are common outside of prison and often are an effective way for businesses to sell their products and for consumers to get discounts. But, inside the prison walls, where most people are already economically disadvantaged and have little means to earn money, bulk-pricing schemes are effectively a fee paid only by the poorest people.
These schemes invite the question: Why don’t these companies charge the lowest price possible for every message?
The hidden costs of per-minute pricing
Per-messaging pricing only tells a part of the story, however. Some states use a more complex pricing structure that can dramatically increase the amount people pay, and companies earn from a single message. In these states, people sending a message to a loved one in prison are charged a simple per-message price. However, people in prisons are charged per minute to use the tablet computer to read and respond to messages. For example, in Delaware, GTL/ViaPath charges people on the outside 25¢ to send a message. However, it costs 5¢ center per minute for incarcerated people to read or respond to the message.
This pricing structure is troubling for many reasons. First, research has shown that people in prison often have lower literacy levels, meaning it likely takes them longer to send and read e-messages. Per-minute pricing acts as a literacy tax, making it far more expensive for people who struggle to read and respond to messages. This pricing structure also makes it nearly impossible to assess what incarcerated people are charged for e-messaging and means companies are profiting twice off of the same message — once when someone sends a message to their loved one in prison and again when that loved one reads it. It is hard to determine how many prisons use this model, but it seems to be most frequently used in prisons that contract with GTL/ViaPath. This complex pricing structure is one of the many problems with “bundled contracts,” which give one company control over multiple services in a prison, allowing them to evade oversight and develop new hidden ways to sap money from incarcerated people.
Waiving commissions, unsurprisingly, leads to lower prices
Through years of abusive practices by prison and jail phone companies, many correctional systems developed an unhealthy reliance on “site commissions,” or kickbacks, to make money off incarcerated people and their families. These commissions have, unfortunately, spilled over into other services, like electronic messaging.
It may be distasteful, but it is not surprising that companies like Securus and GTL seek to profit off of incarcerated people and their families — like it or not, it is the type of behavior we’ve come to expect from corporations and why strong regulatory oversight is needed in this space. Our expectations of government are different, however. Governments should be in the business of serving people, not profiting off of their suffering. This is why these kickbacks are such a problem. They unnecessarily drain money from incarcerated people and their families without providing any added benefit.
Unsurprisingly, among states that charge incarcerated people to send e-messages, prison systems that say they do not receive site-commission revenue have some of the lowest prices. For example, the Illinois Department of Corrections only charges 15¢ per message, and the New York Department of Corrections & Community Supervision charges 15¢-20¢, depending on volume.
As state and federal officials debate how much people in prisons and their loved ones are charged for sending e-messages, they should remember that any price that includes kickbacks for the government is higher than it needs to be.
Little is known about how companies use the data they collect
Other providers, though, are not simply vague about how they handle data. They make data harvesting part of their sales pitch. GTL/ViaPath, the second-largest provider of e-messaging services, advertises to correctional facilities by bragging about its “Data IQ” product, a data-mining technology that the company claims “was designed to handle large volumes of data coming from multiple, disparate sources” to “enable correctional facilities to easily review and analyze the networks, relationships, and connections associated with their inmate population.” The company makes clear it is pumping e-messaging data into its analytics system and using it as yet another surveillance tool that targets people based on nothing more than their contact with an incarcerated person.
While incarcerated people may not have the same privacy rights as those outside the prison walls, they — and the people they exchange messages with — still have a right to know how their data will be handled, and they are entitled to more robust privacy protections than they currently receive. There should be clear guidelines, procedures, disclosure requirements, and protections whenever e-messaging data is accessed by anyone other than an employee of the correctional facility that issued the governing contract.
Making electronic messaging work for incarcerated people, their families, and even prisons
E-messaging can help incarcerated people and their loved ones maintain stronger connections, despite long distances and metal bars. Thus far, though, companies have prioritized profits over functionality.
The service doesn’t have to be expensive, cumbersome, and lacking essential features. There are five things correctional administrators, legislators, and regulators can do to realize its full benefits:
Make the service free.
Electronic messaging has the potential to benefit correctional facilities, incarcerated people, and family members. But to be a win-win-win, the service must be free for end-users. And because correctional facilities stand to reap cost-savings from e-messaging, they should foot the bill.
Traditional physical mail should always remain an accessible option for people to send and receive messages, cards, and other correspondence to and from loved ones on the outside. Unfortunately, citing the costs associated with mail processing, some prisons have waged a virtual war on physical mail by scanning or photocopying incoming mail and distributing digital images or reprints to the recipient (while destroying the original handwritten card or letter). This eliminates the essential human connection of cards and letters and dramatically increases the time between when someone on the outside sends a letter and when their incarcerated loved one receives it. Predictably and for good reason, this has been met with fierce resistance from people on both sides of prison walls.
E-messaging offers a better path that protects physical mail, promotes communication between incarcerated people and the outside world, and addresses the concerns of prison officials about the challenges of processing mail without using harmful scanning technology. By making the service free, incarcerated people and their families will be more likely to use e-messaging for their daily written communications while preserving physical mail as an option. This will likely reduce the amount of mail a facility has to process and deliver considerable cost savings.
Provide better and more useful features
Traditional email is far from perfect, but it offers a model for what e-messaging can be. Prisons should demand that e-messaging providers add features that:
- Allow users on the inside to send traditional emails to anyone with an email address.
- Support documents, government forms, copies of news stories, and other attachments. Highly sensitive computer systems (like those run by courts and tax agencies) have figured out safe ways to do this. E-messaging companies should get on board and allow users to create, attach, send, and receive simple files like PDFs, website screenshots, and word-processing documents.
- Eliminate character limits; they’re restrictive, arbitrary, and technologically unnecessary.
- Give users clear ownership over the content of their messages and a simple and free way to export their data to another program, like Outlook.
- Allow non-English characters.
Eliminate site commissions.
Even if a prison system doesn’t offer e-messaging for free, at the very least, it should eliminate site commissions on the service. This will lower the per-message cost to users and likely produce savings for the prison. Regardless of whether facilities receive commission revenue from other communications services, they should categorically forgo commissions on electronic messaging.
Any correctional facility that deploys e-messaging on personal tablets has the technical capability to allow competing providers to add their apps to the tablet. If people have a choice between two or more providers, market forces are likely to drive prices down and improve functionality. The tablet vendor will undoubtedly complain, but facilities have the upper hand. Allowing other apps onto tablets should become a standard requirement of procurement requests.
Define users’ privacy rights.
At a minimum, all correctional facilities should require that e-messaging providers’ privacy policies tell users information is stored, how long it is stored, how it is protected, who has access to it, and what happens if that data is inappropriately breached.
To gather information on messaging availability, service providers, rates, character limits, and features, we relied on five main sources of information about messaging availability, service providers, rates, character limits, and features:
- State Department of Corrections websites
- Service provider websites
- Documents in our Correctional Contracts Library
- Creating our own accounts with e-messaging providers
- News reports or other anecdotal reporting
These sources are listed in priority order. For example, if a DOC website listed pricing for messaging different from the service provider’s website, we treated the DOC website as the accurate source.
In conducting this analysis, we routinely came across data that was contradictory, confusing, or outdated. While it is tempting to assume that this was the result of sloppy website upkeep, history suggests differently. Early in the struggle to bring down phone rates in prisons and jails, we saw similar patterns in the information that was publicly available, suggesting that it may be a deliberate strategy to evade accountability. Ultimately, this problem was resolved when the Federal Communications Commission and other state and federal regulatory bodies demanded more transparent information — including pricing details — from companies that provided these services. Our experience gathering this information indicates that similar interventions are necessary for this and other emerging technologies.
If we at the Prison Policy Initiative, as people who dedicate our professional lives to understanding and researching these issues, had such difficulty, what chance does a person interacting with the criminal legal system for the first time have at finding clear answers about how to maintain contact with their loved one behind bars and how much it will cost?
Appendix: E-messaging vendors and per-message prices, by state
|State||Vendor||Lowest per-message price||Highest per-message price||Notes|
|California||GTL/ViaPath||0.05||0.05||Incarcerated people in California prisons receive 20 free messages per week.|
|Colorado||Securus/Jpay (inbound only) – GTL/ViaPath (two-way)||0.31||0.36||Price listed is for Securus/Jpay. Price not known for GTL/ViaPath messaging|
|Hawaii||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|Maine||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|Maryland||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|Mississippi||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|Montana||Edovo (as subcontractor)||0.31||0.33|
|Nevada||CorrLinks||0.30||0.30||Only inbound e-messaging is available.|
|New Mexico||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|North Carolina||GTL/ViaPath||0.25||0.25||Based on feedback to this piece, we updated the price of messaging in North Carolina on 4/3/23|
|Rhode Island||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|Utah||N/A – no electronic messaging||N/A||N/A|
|Wyoming||American Prison Data Systems||Unknown||Unknown|
|Federal Bureau of Prisons||CorrLinks||Per minute pricing from incarcerated people. Free for non-incarcerated people.|
About the author
Mike Wessler is the Communications Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. He is the media spokesperson for our campaign to end prison gerrymandering and has authored several pieces that advance our strategic messaging on the issue and highlight state-level victories. In addition, he has contributed to the organization’s work on the financial exploitation of incarcerated people and their families — most recently by authoring pieces on the proposed BOP changes to the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program and the elimination of junk fees.
About the organization
The non-profit non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is most well-known for its big-picture publication Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie that helps the public more fully engage in criminal justice reform. This report builds upon the organization’s work advocating for fairness in industries that exploit the needs of incarcerated people and their families, including those that control prison and jail telephone calls, video calls, and money transfers.
All Prison Policy Initiative reports are collaborative endeavors, and this report is no different. The author would particularly like to thank current staff members for their insights and guidance, as well as former staff member Stephen Raher for the framing and vital research he provided on electronic messaging. The author would also like to thank former staff member Tiana Herring for contributing research support. Lastly, we would like to thank our donors who make this work possible.