JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — For the last seven years, inmates have stocked the libraries of their personal MP3 players with $2 downloads. Come January, they’ll be forced to hand it all over because the Florida Department of Corrections signed a new deal with a competing company.
In April last year, the Florida Department of Corrections struck a deal with JPay. The private company, spearheading a push to sell profit-driven multimedia tablets to incarcerated people across the country, would be allowed to bring the technology to every facility in the nation’s third-largest prison system. But there was a catch.
Inmates had already been purchasing electronic entertainment for the last seven years — an MP3 player program run by a different company: Access Corrections. For around $100, Access sold various models of MP3 players that inmates could then use to download songs for $1.70 each, and keep them in their dorms.
The demand was clear. More than 30,299 players were sold, and 6.7 million songs were downloaded over the life of the Access contract, according to the Department of Corrections. That’s about $11.3 million worth of music.
Because of the tablets, inmates will have to return the players, and they can’t transfer the music they already purchased onto their new devices.
Scott Larsen is the sole provider for his 68-year old brother, who is incarcerated at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford.
"My brother was a musician, and music is very important to him," said Scott Larsen. "The MP3 player was a good source of entertainment and peace of mind for him."
Larsen said he will be able to help his brother rebuild his music library, but there are many other inmates, especially elderly ones, who don’t have the money or family support to do so.
The Department of Corrections, meanwhile, has collected $1.4 million in commissions on each song downloaded and other related sales since July 2011.
The multimedia tablet contract with JPay presents another money-making opportunity.
JPay already operates banking accounts and facilitates phone calls at the state-run prisons, charging inmates and their loved ones steep fees for the services. With the introduction of tablets, JPay will add a wide swath of new spending incentives for its incarcerated customers, offering purchases of music, emailing and other virtual fare.
The resulting download spree will funnel more dollars back to the Department of Corrections, which gleans $2.75 from each inmate money transfer onto the JPay-controlled bank accounts used to purchase the services. The department has already been bringing in record commissions from JPay money transfers, even before the introduction of the tablets. The agency received $3.9 million in commissions from JPay account transfers between April 2017 and March 2018.
In the Access Corrections contract, revenue left over after paying to run the program went back in a general fund controlled by the Legislature. But in the JPay contract, the Department retains any excess revenue in its Administrative Trust Fund.
The Times-Union has for the last several months requested line-item expenditures from the fund, but has yet to receive anything more detailed than general categories. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, about $718,000 from the fund was used to pay out settlements.
Sales of the Access Corrections MP3 players in Florida prisons were halted in August 2017, when the department began implementing the new JPay tablet program.
Inmates were caught off guard when they learned they would not be able to keep their music or transfer it to the new tablets. Hundreds wrote grievances.
The volume of complaints was such that, in December 2017, the Department of Corrections created a new code to track the complaints. Since then, more than 260 additional appeals have been received.
Patrick Manderfield, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the switch is meant to introduce updated technology that will help inmates connect with their families and provide educational opportunities, whereas the MP3 players offered only entertainment. He said the songs cannot be transferred because the "devices/services are provided by two different vendors."
"We have made every effort to ensure inmates can retain non-transferable music by sending their devices and music to an outside address," Manderfield said.
Inmates who owned the players can also receive the mini version of the JPay tablet at no cost, Manderfield added.
At least one department response to sent directly to an inmate contained an additional explanation: money.
Katherine Freeman, who is housed at Homestead Correctional Institution, filed a grievance saying she purchased more than $2,200 of music since January 2014. She complained last year that she was not informed until October that the music she owns would not transfer to the new tablets.
Freeman said in her grievance that the transfers were not being allowed in an attempt "to increase profits to JPay at the expense of hardworking taxpayers (the inmate families)."
Timothy Hoey, the assistant warden, did not deny the financial incentives at play in his response to Freeman, saying that it was "not feasible to download content from one vendor’s device to another, not only due to incompatibility reasons, but the download of content purchased from one vendor to another vendor’s device would negate the new vendor’s ability to be compensated for their services."
"It is the Department’s hope that the inmate population will see the value and promise in the services offered with the Multimedia Kiosk and Tablet Program as a step in the right direction," Hoey wrote. "Grievance Denied."
It is unclear whether Hoey crafted the response himself or received it from another corrections official.
As part of the multimedia tablet contract, JPay received a list of inmates who used the MP3 player.
William Demler, who is incarcerated at South Florida Reception Center, also filed a grievance. He said he purchased 335 songs "under the understanding that these purchases would belong to me forever."
"The DOC promoted the MP3 Program and encouraged participation to ensure a larger share in the profits made by Access Corrections," Demler wrote. "Discontinuing the program and forcing inmates to give up their players without compensation amounts to an act of fraud."
The Department of Corrections sent blunt responses to inmate complaints about the MP3 program’s sudden departure.
"To address your concerns about the inability to transfer music from the MP3 player to the new tablet, unfortunately the download of content from one vendor’s device to another is not allowed," wrote an official from the Bureau of Contract Management.
Boilerplate language sent to inmates also read that the department is "aware that family members over the years have provided funds to their loved ones to add music to their current MP3 player.
"It is unfortunate that the music cannot be transferred, however, we hope that overtime (sic) the family and the inmate will see the added value of the new program."
The Department of Corrections negotiated an extension with Access Corrections to allow inmates to keep their MP3 players until January 23, 2019 if they choose not to participate in the tablet program.
Manderfield, the department spokesman, said that a department code prohibits inmates from owning more than one MP3 player at a time, but even without that, inmates would be able to keep the players because the contract is ending and there would be no way to service them.
Once returned, the inmates can pay a $25 fee to have their device unlocked or their music downloaded onto a CD before being shipped out to a non-prison address.
It is unlikely the inmates see any value in that option.
"I did purchase my MP3 player in order to keep it, and use it until I go home, not to send it to my family," wrote Felipe Avila in his complaint. "Indeed my family does not have a use for such obsolete device, nor do I want it upon my release."
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com