by Alexandra Martinez
Last month, JPay, a prison technology and money management company for current and formerly incarcerated people, agreed to pay $6 million in fines and restitution for taking advantage of current and formerly incarcerated people. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau brought on the claims to JPay, and the company is now forced to pay $2 million in fines, and return $4 million to people who were charged to access money they were owed from debit cards they are forced to use upon release to access gifts from loved ones, earned wages, and benefits intended to help newly released people with reentry.
Now that they’ve been caught red-handed, it appears that Aventiv Technologies, the parent company of JPay, is trying to cover their damaged reputation by partnering with the BIPOC and marginalized communities they exploit for good press. In response, criminal justice advocates are calling out Aventiv and JPay for their complicity in the prison industry, which generates more than $80 billion each year from private corporations and public institutions, with roots in slavery and Jim Crow laws that directly target Black and other marginalized people through unpaid labor and overcharging for basic products.
When the executive director of a program that supports recently released incarcerated people opened an email from the scholarships and philanthropy officer at the Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT) last month, they were surprised to see CFT had partnered with Aventiv Technologies, a prison telecommunications company that charges for basic services such as phone calls, emails, money transfers, and restitution payments, to offer $25,000-$50,000 in funding to programs like theirs. The email invited public charities and programs in Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, or New York that aim to reduce recidivism rates to apply for a grant by their fall deadline—with no mention of how Aventiv exploits the vulnerable and incarcerated people they are purporting to support.
The executive director, who has asked to remain anonymous, was familiar with Aventiv but wasn’t aware of their philanthropic efforts. They had grown accustomed to hearing how their program’s participants had to pay fees for phone calls, emails, restitution, and even money transfers—things that are typically free outside of prison. Shocked by this offer, the executive director did not apply, and suspected it was just an attempt at positive media attention. Despite rebranding efforts and a “transformation agenda” to appear progressive and empathetic toward the needs of incarcerated people, JPay is still profiting off incarcerated BIPOC and other marginalized people who have no other option but to pay JPay for access to the outside world.
JPay is a sore subject for Nancy DeNike, who was incarcerated for five years at Homestead Correctional Institution. While incarcerated, it was her lifeline to the outside world, the only way to make a phone call and send a letter. Now, after almost two years on probation, she still gets charged a processing fee for every restitution payment she makes as part of her parole. She estimates she’ll have paid $8,000 in fees to JPay alone.
“I asked my probation officer, ‘Can I write a check for my restitution?’ And they said, no, the only way I can pay is through JPay,” says DeNike. “They’re just feeding off of the poor and the disadvantaged … It’s sad to me, and what they’re proposing to give out [in grant funding] is like lunch money for them.”
According to Aventiv Technologies’ financial statements from 2019 and 2020, the prison telecom corporation capitalized on the COVID-19 pandemic, profiting off the suspension of in-person visitation and nationwide transitions to electronic communication. Just six years ago, Aventiv Technologies was pushing for jails to ban in-person visitation altogether. In 2020, Aventiv’s revenue grew 10%, from $697.5 million to $767.5 million, compared to just 2% in 2019. Even worse, JPay is the largest player in the correctional financial services sector of the prison industry, giving them a virtual monopoly over the market. In 2014, JPay had 71% of the market share across state agencies and 46% across all federal, state, and county agencies, serving more than 1.7 million incarcerated people in 32 states, 40% of whom had no other option.
Despite philanthropic efforts such as the grant funding, providing free phone calls to prisons after Hurricane Ida in August, and providing 52,000 “free” tablets to New York Department of Corrections in 2018, JPay and Aventiv’s revenue continues to grow through a bundled contract of several JPay services, including $0.39 email stamps with limited character counts and extra costs for attachments like photos, $9 for 30 minutes of video chat, and above-market prices for media.
Aventiv may be giving out free products, but they are making up the money elsewhere. These contracts exchange a one-time fixed cost for higher download and usage rates of materials, costing more for incarcerated people. A song on a JPay tablet can cost up to $2.50, and an album as much as $46. Recipients of these grants would only be receiving funds their program participants poured into a corrupt business.
Apart from the charges for services on the “free” tablets, Aventiv also stands to gain as prisons across the nation are banning physical mail. The pivot to charging $0.39 for email downloads and increased tablet usage will see already vulnerable families faced with added fees and forced to put more revenue in Aventiv’s pocket.
The money Aventiv is offering to reentry programs is tempting and could go a long way in providing assistance to those most in need, but organizers say accepting it would mean ignoring the vast harm JPay and its parent company have wrought and would just buy into their hypocrisy, feeding the prison system’s cycle of exploitation.
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