Predators, profiteers, opportunists — those are a few of the labels critics have applied to companies that supply electronic tablets in America’s prisons. The tablets give an incarcerated audience access to a selection of news outlets, study materials and entertainment, but for a price that can strain the budgets of prisoners and their loved ones.
The Marshall Project distributes a print publication, News Inside, in hundreds of prisons, and is launching a video series, Inside Story, featuring stories of interest to viewers behind bars. Should we make our work available on the much-criticized tablets? We’ve decided yes — with conditions.
As a teenager, I was involved in a shootout where someone lost their life. It was the worst choice I’ve ever made. Because of it, I was sent to prison for 27 years — right out of high school. I was both remorseful and sad for myself. But no one around me cared. Everyone had their own problems.
While there, I desperately looked for outlets to help me feel like I had value, so I joined a college program.
I quickly learned that I couldn’t have many basic materials to facilitate my education — access to documentaries of my choice, books and periodicals I thought were relevant. Prison administrators feared they could become Trojan horses for contraband. (Their fears were not unreasonable. I’ve seen marijuana smuggled in disguised as chocolate-covered nuts in individually wrapped Almond Joys.)
So I sought and developed hundreds of hacks to get relevant information. For instance, sometimes I would ask teachers to print out internet articles for me. Other times, I would glean the name of a law professor from a news report and ask a family member to track down an address for me to write.
Fast-forward 25 years. Computers, emails, online courses and streaming have become common parts of life in the free world. Prison tablet companies packaged, adjusted and tailored these technologies, then promised various corrections departments a contraband-free way of delivering educational material, entertainment and modes of communication to incarcerated people.
The catch? The most popular companies charge for emails, movies, games, books and news. In many cases, they charge people behind bars more than what free folks pay for similar products. On average, incarcerated people who have paying jobs in prison max out at 52 cents an hour.
It’s no surprise that many criminal justice reform advocates have railed against these companies.
I understand their reservations. I considered myself lucky that I got paroled months before tablets became common. I wondered if I’d have had the discipline to pursue my college studies rather than spending my money on escapist entertainment.
So, after creating News Inside — our print publication that brings relevant news to incarcerated people across the US — we decided not to place it on tablets that charge end users. We didn’t want to add to the allure of devices that took so much from people who couldn’t afford to pay.
But as News Inside grew in popularity, thousands of people wrote to tell us how difficult it is to get quality information. I realized I had made a decision to limit their access without asking them what they thought about it.
So we sent out questionnaires to determine if incarcerated tablet users and their loved ones thought we should place content on devices run by for-profit companies. Here’s what they told us:Incarcerated people
Would you be interested in accessing News Inside and Inside Story free of charge on telecommunication tablets provided by for-profit companies? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts and concerns.
- 96% said yes.
Would you want your incarcerated loved one to have access to The Marshall Project’s News Inside publication and Inside Story video series if the delivery was placed on for-profit tablets like the ones offered by JPay or GTL? We would ensure that there would be no surcharge for our content.
- 90% said yes.
Although we aren’t advocates, we at The Marshall Project have a mission. In part, it’s to have an impact on the system through journalism, rendering it more fair, effective, transparent and humane.
To be successful, we believe it’s important to report for people living in that system, a population that is largely overlooked. In doing so, we’ve established a trusting relationship with many. To maintain it, we must listen to and not decide for them.
“I think, I speak for the majority, that we will be thankful to access News Inside and video stories from our communication devices. ... Making it free will allow every inmate the opportunity to stay up with what’s going on, especially key topics. And it will give us hope knowing that people out there are fighting for us.” — Danny Young, Florida.
As the popular saying goes, “nothing about us, without us” — we go. This is why we are placing our work on for-profit tablets with the agreement that no incarcerated person can be charged for our content, the companies cannot use our name in their marketing without our permission, and our journalism won’t be censored by said companies. In this way, we can provide relevant information to as many people in the system as possible.
“I would much like to receive [News Inside and Inside Story] over this type of media. ... People need to know what's going on. So much of what guys in here consume is fluff and the mainstream media nonsense that has nothing to do with their personal lives.” — Bryan Singleton, Ohio.
We hear you, Bryan.