Issue 3 / Justice

December 01, 2017
A photo of a prison yard.

Photo by Larry Farr on Unsplash.

Hacking the Carceral State

Stephen Phillips

A new coalition of neoliberal reformers sees tablets as a tool for ending mass incarceration. But using technology to shrink the carceral state is harder than it looks.

In 2010, Adam Abdullah walked free from prison after thirty-three years inside. He can still recall the sensation of rejoining a society that in his absence had put a computerized telephone the size of a candy bar in the hands of a woman across the aisle from him on the bus home:

She kept moving her fingers and I thought, “What the hell is she doing?” Then it dawned on me: That’s texting. For hours, just tapping that little phone.

Technology in its present-day networked and connected form poses problems in a setting conceived to separate from society those deemed to have abused its freedoms. Apart from intermittent access to an offline PC, Abdullah, convicted of kidnapping while armed, was largely sealed off from the digital technologies that have revolutionized life on the outside. Today, he’s a cofounder of Denver’s Second Chance Center, helping ex-inmates get back on their feet. But the metaphor he employs for his time inside is grim: “We were goods, like a can of spam put up on a shelf.”

Seven years on, consumer devices of the kind that awed Abdullah are proliferating in prison. This technology aligns squarely with penal reform goals espoused by a loose-knit neoliberal coalition of fiscal conservatives and moderate Democrats. Forty years after the vertiginous run-up in the prison population began, criticism of mass incarceration is no longer the preserve of radicals.

These groups have found common cause in getting “Smart on Crime” (as opposed to just tough) and bringing ballooning correctional costs to heel, as University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marie Gottschalk has documented. Vendors of tablets position their products as instruments for enacting this agenda. They tout them as a tool to help rehabilitate inmates, ease their re-entry into society, reduce recidivism, and pare cost.

It’s hard to quibble with the potential these devices hold to enrich and empower an often-despairing population, as Abdullah attests to.

But early evidence suggests that the language of reform offers convenient cover for business practices that prey on prisoners and their families. Moreover, even when deployed with regard to inmates’ rights, technology is no panacea for the ills of a criminal justice system that locks up Americans with the same alacrity that Stalin sent citizens of the Soviet Union to the Gulag. In fact, it’s possible to regard the focus on a technological fix as a distraction from the real steps needed to end mass incarceration—and even as a symptom of the neoliberal preoccupation with budget cuts that helped get us here.

Inside the Hair Shirt

The “digital divide” is a phrase less on our lips these days, though pockets of dislocation from the information age stubbornly persist. But if there’s a populace among whom it remains starkly operative, it’s the more than 2.17 million inhabitants of America’s carceral state.

According to the 2017 edition of the Columbia [University] Human Rights Law Review-produced Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, “Most states ban prisoners from direct, unsupervised access to the Internet.” Fears of bad actors hacking a website, downloading porn, taunting a victim, getting to a witness, arranging a drug drop, or even ordering a hit—pick your scenario—loom large.

Reinforcing such concerns, prison leaders are acculturated to view innovation with suspicion, cued to the worst case and inclined in most matters to default to security considerations. “When you work in corrections, you tend to be risk averse,” says Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel. For good measure, technology has characteristically been deemed a luxury of which prisoners are undeserving—certainly nothing the public would pay for.

Accordingly, there’s a perfunctory hair-shirt aspect to prison technology. It stands in relation to free-world technology as prison chow does to a restaurant meal or prison-issue fatigues do to a tailored suit.

Proprietary prison email systems allow inmates to correspond with approved contacts. But in- and outbound messages are typically subject to fees—between twenty-five and sixty cents, according to Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News. And stingy length limits apply. These range from 1500 to 6000 characters, at the lower end of which Martin Luther King Jr. would have had to piece out his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on an installment plan, attorney Stephen Raher notes.

Walled Gardens

“Corrections-grade” tablets follow stolidly in the tradition of penal products as drabber, dowdier versions of their free-world counterparts. They typically come sheathed in bulbous clear plastic bumpers to offer contraband no quarter and withstand use in a “rugged” environment. And they offer users a locked-down “walled garden” of content such as AOL in its heyday could scarcely have dreamt of. Whereas AOL users quickly learned they had only to unlatch an HTML gate to gambol free on the open internet, prison tablet content resides on on-site servers whose robust security, coupled to safeguards on the device itself, are said to render the threat of a break for digital freedom strictly theoretical.

But there’s much that prisoners can do on them. For their intellectual edification and personal and professional growth, they can browse educational modules—GED lessons, vocational training, courses in cognitive behavioral therapy, or help with addiction. Voice or Skype-like video calls can be placed to friends and family, or inmates may send them email. And they can listen to music, read ebooks, watch movies, or play games. To manage everyday life, they can make requests of and lodge grievances with correctional staff, order commissary items, and schedule visits from loved ones.

These capabilities deliver on key tenets of neoliberal prison reform. Two out of three ex-prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. Education interrupts the cycle. Inmates who take classes are 43 percent less likely to reoffend. Tablets can extend educational offerings to prisoners at “zero marginal cost,” notes David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

They can also serve as digital umbilici, nourishing “social capital” shown to fortify inmates during imprisonment. Studies in Florida and Minnesota linked staying connected to loved ones to reduced recidivism. The findings relate to in-person visits, but prisons are frequently remote from inmates’ homes—hard for friends and family, many of whom are working poor, to reach. Videoconferencing—“video visitation” in correctional parlance—is a boon, allowing prisoners to see loved ones as they talk.

Moreover, in an environment that otherwise affords scant scope for control over one’s affairs, it has to feel empowering to exercise at least a modicum of autonomy by using tablets’ administrative capabilities. Finally, it’s only common sense to familiarize prisoners with technology they’ll need to be fluent in to find work, secure services, and generally navigate life post-release.

Propelled by such use cases, eleven states (and multiple local jails) now offer tablets, with up to three more expected to greenlight them or go live by the end of the year. And, though its current status is unclear—the initiative appears on a Department of Justice web page labeled “archived content” since Trump entered the White House—last year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced a “pilot program [to] be rolled out at two prisons in early 2017 and… expanded to additional sites in future years.”

Carceral Capital

But, for all the potential tablets hold, there are reasons to be skeptical of the vendors selling them.

The core business of GTL and Securus Technologies, the companies that dominate prison information and communications technology, and substantially control its nascent tablet market, is prison phone systems. With Telmate (since acquired by GTL), they presided over prison payphone rates of up to $17 for fifteen minutes. The FCC capped interstate rates at 25 cents a minute in 2013, but the companies successfully appealed price controls on in-state calls, which make up most of their business. As of late last year, these ran as high as more than $1.50 per minute, according to advocacy group the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

Prison tablet deployments are often “bundled” with phone service contracts. As such, they’re subject to the same industry practice under which prisons collect “commissions”—typically a cut of contractual revenue—from vendors. These commissions are presented as a way to subsidize inmate programing, but they’ve actually hurt inmates by contributing to inflated payphone rates. They also offer a lever that companies use to land exclusive access to prisoners. A 2015 tender obtained by The New York Times revealed how Arizona’s Department of Corrections scored bids to run its phone system: 1250 points to the contractor dangling the largest commission versus an aggregate of 300 points for all other criteria.

Underwriting this arrangement are inmates and their families. GTL bears the cost of installing the infrastructure for tablet deployment and then distributes its devices to inmates free (with exceptions: in Pennsylvania inmates pay $147 for theirs), charging them for access to content. Subscriptions typically start at 99 cents per day and go up to $25 for a month, says executive director of inmate applications and hardware Brian Peters. Other fees are transactional: for example, 25 cents for text-only email, 50 cents to send messages with an attachment, and $1 for one with embedded video. Securus didn’t reply to an interview request, but access to one of its tablets commands a monthly fee of $15 to $45, while another costs an undisclosed sum plus charges for downloadable content.

This model has the signal merit of getting taxpayers off the hook. The political untenability of asking us to pay for anything that appears to cosset inmates is considered axiomatic.

“The public doesn’t want to pay,” says Martin Horn, who led the Pennsylvania and New York City Departments of Correction in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, respectively. For a glimpse of the injunctive hold of this supposed truism, look no further than the disclaimer the Federal Bureau of Prisons felt obliged to issue on the first web page that comes up when you Google “TRULINCS,” acronym for its Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System, an email service:

No taxpayer dollars are used for this service. Funding is provided entirely by the Inmate Trust Fund, which is maintained by profits from inmate purchases of commissary products, telephone services, and the fees inmates pay for using TRULINCS.

But it’s worth considering who benefits from this posture, enabling as it does a lucrative business and fulsome commissions for prisons. GTL and Securus are owned by private equity outfits, and Securus’ current owner Abry Partners stands to make a handsome premium on the $640 million it paid for the company in 2013 if the FCC approves its $1.6 billion sale to Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity. Meanwhile, commission receipts paid to prisons added up to more than $460 million in 2013—a windfall put toward “roads…staff salaries [and] state or county’s general budget,” among other items, in addition to “inmate welfare,” according to the FCC.

Peters points to the “significant capital burden” of outfitting “an entire building with a wireless network…and handing every prisoner a tablet.” But a copy of GTL’s 2015 contract with Colorado state prisons obtained by PPI is a feat of legal and financial engineering. For $800,000 a year, GTL has “the exclusive right to collect and retain all revenue generated from the services supplied through this Agreement.” Beyond contractually fixed phone charges, the company “may in its discretion change any pricing,” the document adds. This includes “up to $19.99 per one month subscription” for a music streaming service—twice the price of Spotify for a fraction of the content if the catalog available to Pennsylvania inmates is any guide, PPI notes. The contract also permits GTL to levy fees on electronic transfers of money deposited in inmates’ accounts to pay for services—a widespread industry practice.

Securus, for its part, has shown little compunction about trampling inmates’ interests when this conduces to maximal profit. According to PPI, the company inserted clauses in contracts requiring some prisons deploying video visitation to cease in-person visits—forcing inmates and their loved ones to pay for its service as their only means of seeing one another—before backing off amid outcry.

The Disruptors Are Coming

The prison technology market certainly seems ripe for disruption. This is what American Prison Data Systems (APDS) and Edovo (a contraction of the suitably aspirational “education over obstacles”) are banking on. Both push tablets loaded with gamified education platforms that prisons, not inmates, pay for. Instead, inmates earn credit for completing educational modules redeemable for entertainment options.

Both also flaunt their social conscience. APDS advertises its certification as a public benefit corporation committed to “social impact” besides the bottom line. Edovo bills itself as a “criminal justice reform and prison tech company.” APDS’s backers include ex-Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit and former Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer. Edovo recently snagged the Global EdTech Startup Award.

These start-ups will surely find it challenging competing against rivals bestowing commissions. But research from England—a reasonable, if imperfect, analog to America—suggests wriggle room beyond taxpayers’ reflexive opposition to prison technology that might embolden officials to put public money on the line. A poll of English attitudes to “prisoners’ access to digital technology” by De Montfort University researchers encountered familiar squeamishness. But 57 percent said access could be “earned,” half viewed technology as rehabilitative, and 44 percent anticipated “efficiency savings” that would “save them money.” Another 25 percent were “undecided.”

“Most of the public is ambivalent,” says co-author Victoria Knight. “They have a reaction, ‘prison is for punishment,’ but when you dig deeper they can be swayed. There’s room to inform.”

A little over three years after their launch, APDS and Edovo are in forty-plus institutions each. There’s much to like about their approach. They embrace transparent costs instead of palming them off on the poorest and least powerful among us. They compete on technology rather than how much they’re willing to pay for access to a captive market.

And by placing education at the fore, they depart from a model in which tablets emulate the soporific function of TV in prison—a digital, rather than electronic, “babysitter”—as the private equity emphasis on monetizable content tends toward. They even gesture toward a more expansive sense of social mission on the part of prisons—one that might incline them to straighten up from their defensive crouch on technology.

Beyond Technocracy

Ultimately, however, we shouldn’t conflate prison tablets with genuine penal reform, even if the companies behind them have relatively enlightened business models. In fact, with its narrow-gauge neoliberal focus on trimming costs, the enterprise might even be considered inimical to reform.

Tablets are frequently positioned as a solution to runaway spending. This perpetuates a false narrative about the fiscal burden of incarceration. While prisons represent the second-fastest growing line item in state budgets, they account for a fraction of overall expenditure—half of what states devote to highways, writes University of Pennsylvania’s Gottschalk. The same cost-saving mania arguably contributed to the dynamic that landed many inmates in prison to begin with by gutting social welfare programs, she adds.

And the “fixation” on reducing recidivism props up spurious notions about the deterrent effect of incarceration on crime—the same notions that fueled the policies behind mass imprisonment, Gottschalk notes. The National Research Council has concluded, she observes, that the “increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime, but the magnitude is highly uncertain and the results of most studies suggest it was unlikely to have been large.”

More fundamentally, Gottschalk excoriates neoliberal reformers for failing to make the case for shrinking the prison population as a humanitarian imperative unrelated to economic concerns. This would be a starting point for the practical steps entailed in actual reform: rescinding draconian laws that put so many people behind bars in the first place, restoring voting rights and benefits entitlements for ex-prisoners currently deprived of them, and spending money, without the prospect of immediate returns, on mental health, drug treatment, and other services to help them pick up their lives.

Absent such action, the carceral state—infinitely resourceful and protected by entrenched interests—seems here to stay. Initiatives to spare minor drug offenders prison time have garnered much attention, but other crimes pick up the slack, perpetuating mass imprisonment. In 2014, the Pew Charitable Trusts forecast a 3 percent uptick in the state prison population by 2018.

We shouldn’t be lulled by bromides about technology into normalizing the ugly exceptionalism of our criminal justice system. We’re home to 5 percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of all prisoners. The way to change this brute fact is quite unambiguous. It requires political leadership, rather than prostration before the most reactionary elements of public opinion, and it cannot be outsourced to private vendors. Deployed with an emphasis on education and not outsize profit, prison tablets are eminently worthwhile. But as a substitute for real penal reform, they’re so much technocratic solutionism.

Stephen Phillips has written for The Atlantic, Smithsonian, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Financial Times, among other publications

This piece appears in Logic's issue 3, "Justice". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.