Challenges to Achieving Digital Equity for Incarcerated Individuals

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Digital Beat

Challenges to Achieving Digital Equity for Incarcerated Individuals

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Digital Equity Act recognizes eight “covered populations” as disproportionately experiencing digital inequity. These groups are to be a focus of efforts supported through grants and planning processes:

  1. Individuals living in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.
  2. Individuals 60 years of age or older.
  3. Veterans.
  4. Individuals with disabilities.
  5. Individuals with barriers to the English language (including English language learners and those with low literacy).
  6. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
  7. Individuals residing in rural areas.
  8. Individuals incarcerated in non-federal correctional facilities.

These groups experience difficulties accessing the internet for varied yet overlapping reasons. In this and upcoming articles, we look at data that explains why these populations are being targeted for digital equity efforts.

Incarcerated Individuals

Through a series of acquisitions and mergers over three decades, prison technology companies like JPay and Global Tel Link (GTL) have dominated the prison telecommunications space, effectively becoming virtual monopolies. Anticompetitive practices have allowed corporations to gouge families with high prices and ancillary fees for prison phone calls, a practice that reportedly left one in three inmate families in debt.

Surrounded by a “digital moat,” incarcerated people are disadvantaged by a lack of access to training opportunities in digital skills otherwise available to the general public. The result is a returning prison population ill prepared for the challenges of reentering free society.

Although internet access is expanding in some corrections facilities, it is often still limited or prohibited by law. And even when internet access is available, the costs of internet use can be prohibitive.

Researchers Paolo Arguelles and Isabelle Ortiz-Luis find that inmates have little opportunity to engage with technology while behind bars. Correctional facilities partner with JPay and GTL to provide inmates with corrections-grade tablets preloaded with a selection of games and music, educational content, mental health and legal resources, and secure messaging services. In most cases, tablets come with a restrictive operating system configured so that inmates are only able to access the facility’s secure local area network (LAN). Inmates are unable to access the open internet.

Arguelles and Ortiz-Luis also found that the exploitative tactics of prison technology companies have spread to tablet programs. Although correctional facilities often receive tablets from companies free of charge to prisons and American taxpayers, the companies negotiate exclusive contracting deals with facilities, charging exorbitant prices for inmates to use the devices and pricing ebooks, games, videos, music, and messaging services well above their normal fair-market price. Every email requires paid “postage,” as does every attached image and additional page, with the price of a digital stamp raised around special days like Christmas and Mother’s Day. If families wish to spend time with an incarcerated loved one over video chat, JPay charges $10 for thirty minutes and $1 for one thirty-second “videogram.” By charging inmates and their families excessive fees to stay connected, companies exacerbate the issues their tablet program claims to help solve, disproportionately affecting lower-income families who may not be able to afford the costs of keeping in touch with loved ones.

On January 5, 2023, President Joe Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act to help ensure just and reasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in correctional and detention facilities across the country. Congress’s goal in passing the Martha Wright-Reed Act was to help reduce financial burdens that prevent incarcerated people from being able to communicate with loved ones and friends. The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering rules to implement the new law.

Importantly, the Federal Communications Commission hasn’t been the only venue in the fight for prison phone justice. Martha Wright decided to sue the Corrections Corporation of America and challenge the monopoly system that enabled telecommunications companies in the private prison system to charge high rates for inmate call services. In Martha Wright v. Corrections Corporation of America, the plaintiffs, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleged that these exclusive deals and high rates violate the constitutional rights of the incarcerated.

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The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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