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Say NO to Profiting Off Incarceration

SRLP is proud to continue work with the Corrections Accountability Project on their campaign to shed light on predatory practices against incarcerated people and their loved ones.

This summer, New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYS DOCCS) announced that they would be using an online money transfer service – provided by JPay – for depositing money into the accounts of incarcerated people.

Incarcerated people depend on loved ones to provide them with resources for survival. While the State is obligated to meet basic needs, many people find that what the State supplies simply isn’t sufficient. As an illustration of this please read our campaign page on menstrual health in New York State prisons. This page shares vital information about how people who menstruate are dependent on outside funds to buy enough tampons or pads for their periods. With the average incarcerated person earning 17 cents an hour, funds from loved ones can be a lifeline for basic supplies such as healthcare supplies, stamps, and more.

The new system, JPay, charges exorbitant hidden fees while the previous policy allowed loved ones to directly deposit money into an account through the facility itself. While JPay has some free options the instructions are unnecessarily complicated and push people into using the costly online service. For example, rather than sending money directly to the individual facility for processing, personal checks must now be mailed to JPay in Florida. Checks are then held for 10 days. This causes a lot of insecurity regarding the process and can cause long delays for fund,  coercing more people into choosing the high online fees. Luckily, the Corrections Accountability Project has compiled a very helpful guide for loved ones to help clarify this process.

In September, SRLP joined other organizations in asking our membership base to submit to us their personal experiences with JPay. We asked not only what was going well, or wrong, but also what their ideas were for changing how incarcerated people access funds. Over a third of the responses returned to the Corrections Accountability Project came from SRLP’s Prisoner Advisory Committee (PAC) membership. Our PAC is made up of incarcerated transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex people held in prisons or jails; two-thirds of PAC members are in New York State.

There were many common themes in the responses provided: lack of transparency, isolation, and concern for friends and family were some of the top issues. You can add to the collection of testimonies by submitting your own on the Corrections Accountability Project website. Below are some highlights from the responses that SRLP’s PAC members gave.

Sara, a PAC member currently held at Attica, wrote that “As a trans woman housed in NYS DOCCS for the past 7 years, and facing a minimum of another 19 years to my first parole board, I am highly affected by every move, decision, and policy change DOCCS makes, and I am dependent on DOCCS for housing, services, and care.” Sara highlights that anyone dependent on a system for support and communication is deeply affected by even minor changes. Unlike a person not dependent on the State, our incarcerated community cannot simply choose another banking system if they are concerned about the security of their funds or upset about “hidden fees.” Getting these systems right means security for deeply vulnerable people.

On the subject of hidden fees and lack of security, Mu’maeenah at Franklin wrote that JPay has created a “usurious situation. One in which JPay can employ nefarious tactics to force people to use JPay to deposit funds in a loved one’s account, while subjecting them to assume costs that far exceed any ATM, or online banking surcharges.”

Mu’maeenah went on to point out the many security failings of this new system that puts money earned by loved ones who are themselves low-income people, at risk. She wrote “You see, the problem with this new arrangement is that it leaves too much room for theft, embezzlement, and other skill-duggery! Also […] is the system secure from hackers?!”

This lack of transparency regarding security, fees, and even basic use of JPay was a constant theme. Cinda, a PAC member outside of New York State who has experienced JPay in the Texas system wrote that “My aunt only uses the online transactions because money orders have disappeared and this gives her a digital “paper trail.” The costs are too high for such a slow process.”

As Cinda mentioned, it is important to remember that there are very real repercussions on family. In fact, a strong theme throughout the responses was the effect that this new system is having on families and loved ones. Another out of state PAC member, AJ, who has experienced JPay in the Arizona system shared with us that “[JPay] preys on prisoners’ families and loved ones. That [JPay] charge exorbitant fees to civilians who are mostly poor and/or financially struggling is totally unfair, unjust, and morally and ethically wrong. [JPay] try to bleed our loved ones dry.”

Following this theme, in New York, PAC member Pernell at Sing Sing wrote that JPay is “making a killing off of inmates families, making people pay to have money placed into inmates accounts.”

Sara at Attica expanded on this. “…Not only will prisoners be prejudiced and suffer, but so will their civilian family, friends, and support systems…It will reduce available funds as cash-strapped families will have to factor in any fees (hidden or not) into the amount they can send, or be unable completely to send money. Directly damaging community contact! Why does DOCCS think they can “farm-out” our financial accounts to an out of state contractor? Because they do not care about us, or fair and equitable management of our financial accounts.”

PAC members had ideas about how to correct this policy change. Mu’maeenah suggested that one change in the policy could be that “they must allow multiple options for the deposit of funds. Any by options, I mean other wireless deposit services such as: Western Union, MoneyGram, Paypal, Cash App, and Venmo, to name a few.”

Using the feedback and ideas from our PAC members, SRLP will continue to work with the Corrections Accountability Project to push against this exploitative change and to make access between people inside and their loved ones more effective, easy, and free as it always should be.