In early 2020 at the Eastern Missouri Correctional Center, the pandemic prevented professors from entering the facility and taking in-person part in Washington University's Prison Education Project. The project went digital using the students’ prison-issued electronic tablets. The 7-inch tablets, from a private company called JPay, were loaded with an educational app that allowed students to access coursework. JPay’s system was free to students and the college, but the technology was unreliable. JPay, a subsidiary of Aventiv Technologies, provided the tablets at no cost to the Missouri Department of Corrections. Selling the content used on these tablets is big business for JPay, reports Mother Jones. People in the Missouri prison system must pay JPay for almost all noneducational content, including 25 cents to send an email and up to $55 to listen to a single album.
JPay's educational platform, Lantern, served as a selling point in securing state contracts, allowing JPay to spin its presence in prisons as a reform effort. “Education is the key to reducing recidivism,” said then–JPay CEO Ryan Shapiro. The pandemic-induced demand for remote learning created new opportunities for the company. There’s a big pile of cash Aventiv appears to be eyeing: a federal ban on Pell Grant aid for prisoners that will lift next year, making millions of dollars available for incarcerated people looking for a college education. Aventiv's subsidiaries, which include the prison telecom giant Securus, have a history of profiting off the captive market of prisoners and their families. Critics worry that as financial aid becomes more widely available to prisoners, Aventiv will try to “own that market” on prison education, as Bianca Tylek of the anti-prison industry group Worth Rises puts it.