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Prison 'E-Messaging' Needs Oversight, Inmate Advocates Say

Over the last twenty years, advocates and regulators have successfully lowered the prices of prison and jail phone rates. The companies behind these services regrouped and refocused their efforts. Seeking other ways to protect their profits, they entered less-regulated industries and offered new products to people behind bars. One new service in particular — text-based electronic messaging or “e-messaging” — has experienced explosive and unregulated growth, says the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) in a new report. Rather than living up to its potential as a way to maintain connections between people in prison and the outside world, high costs and shoddy technology have made e-messaging unreliable, says the advocacy group.

PPI cites several problems with "e-messaging," including interoperability restrictions, lack of support for most attachments, text & form-based documents and non-English characters, unnecessary character limits, information ownership questions and the fact that News stories and links can’t be shared. PPI says the industry is in flux, expanding quickly, and lacks legislative and regulatory oversight. At least 43 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons offer some electronic messaging options. In the technology's early days, many inmates had to wait in line to use a shared computer to read or send electronic messages. Now messaging is commonly part of a computer tablet package, where each prisoner is assigned their own tablet or may check one out for a set period of time. PPI says tablets are often touted as “free” but, in reality, include hidden costs. As tablets become more common partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the companies providing them continue to monetize every aspect of incarcerated people’s communications, reading, listening to music, and formal education, PPI says. The group says there are privacy concerns when one company controls all communications channels to which inmates have access.


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