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Tablets in Federal Prison: Profiteering and Exploitation

Nov 20, 2022

By Jeremy Fontanez

Last month, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) issued this announcement:

Bureau of Prisons Office of Public Affairs spokesman Donald Murphy has confirmed that it is in the process of introducing the Keefe SCORE 7c tablet into federal institutions, offering it for sale through the commissaries at a cost of $118. Initially, it can only be used for music downloads and movie rentals—both at an additional price.

Eventually, Keefe says purchasers will be able to use the tablet to communicate with family and friends via fee-based text and video messaging.

I know the BOP is plagued with a variety of challenges, from corruption, to physical and sexual abuse, to even the murder of inmates. What I am sharing with you here is not as serious as these but is another “nail in the coffin” nonetheless.

I contend that Advanced Technology Group, a Keefe subsidiary, and the BOP are exploiting the prisoner population by implementing a “pay-per-download” movie rental system rather than charging a flat monthly fee for a limited number of basic cable channels. The average price to rent a movie for a one-time period is $4.70. This means, if I want to rent five movies for a month, I will be charged $23. This is designed to earn maximum profit for ATG and the BOP but is a serious burden for the average prisoner.

A profiteer is one who makes an unreasonable profit.” To exploit is “to use unfairly for one’s own advantage.

Merriam Webster Dictionary 11th Ed.

Lack of Equality

As with any population, the people confined to BOP prisons differ greatly in their economic circumstances. The chosen distribution/payment system for movies will widen the gap between the “haves” and “have nots.” Prisoners with more financial resources will be able to access more content than those with more limited resources.

This will create animosity among the prisoners, breeding jealousy and reinforcing low self-esteem in those who can’t afford to rent movies because they don’t have people outside who can send money in. The result will be more criminal behavior, as the less-fortunate resort to selling drugs or doing whatever else they can to “keep up with the big dogs.”

People spend many years of their lives in these institutions. It is impractical (and cruel) to expect prisoners to spend the money required for downloads month after month, year after year. Remember, inflation over the last 20 years has been close to 100%, yet the BOP has refused to raise the institutional pay rate for the inmate population. In 2010, it actually lowered the amount we can earn while working institutional jobs.

In almost every state institution, prisoners are permitted to purchase their own television (or tablets) and do just that. For example, in Pennsylvania, prisoners may purchase a TV and pay $17.50 a month for basic cable access in their cells. Texas prisoners can also purchase tablets, with a three-tier access system: “pay-per-download” for movie rentals, a Pluto TV app for accessing specialized channels at a cost of 5 cents per minute, and free access to basic cable channels such as AMC, TNT, FX, SY and FY. In addition, they can use their tablets for reading ebooks, email messaging and music downloads. 

ATG and the BOP are indifferent to the mental, emotional and even physical health of prisoners. They know well that the communal TVs in the units are, and always have been, a major cause of conflict and stress. The captain at FCI Cumberland (the medium-security prison in Maryland where I live) has been forced to close the TV rooms many times due to these conflicts. And prisoners across the BOP system have suffered injuries, some fatal, from assaults due to fights over the televisions. The BOP and ATG could alleviate these conflicts by providing reasonable access to basic cable channels on prisoners’ tablets.

The BOP claims that security and safety of inmates and staff is its main priority. Yet, it won’t take this simple step to alleviate much of the stress associated with incarceration, and the conflicts that risk the very security and safety it claims to prioritize.

Providing access to basic cable channels on the tablets for a reasonable flat monthly fee would improve our mental and emotional health and be more equitable.

This is not to say that pay-per-download movie rentals must be completely eliminated. A hybrid system of access – a flat monthly rate for access to basic cable channels with the option of renting additional movies – would be most fair.   

Forced choice is no choice at all

The BOP and ATG say we have a choice: Pay to access media content, or watch the communal TVs in the units. However, the majority of us will be forced to rely on communal TVs not by choice, but by necessity due to limited resources. They are demonstrating a complete disregard for a population that has long been starved for the ability to access TV programming within the privacy of our cells, where we can find some semblance of contentment and peace of mind.

The BOP has stripped the prisoner population down to its barest essentials for survival. While once we were offered a plethora of events, activities and privileges, there is now the equivalent of a barren wasteland. Today, the BOP is barely anything more than a warehouse for people.

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