Written by Walter F. Roche Jr., The Tennessean
Family and friends of about 20,000 inmates in the Tennessee prison system now must pay a commission to a private for-profit Florida company when they want to send money to the inmates' trust accounts, and the state will get a cut, too.
Under a contract awarded late last year and recently expanded, JPay of Miami charges fees of up to 4.5 percent to forward money to Tennessee inmates. The state under the contract also gets its share of the payments, a 50 cent fee for every transaction.
Advocates say the arrangement amounts to a kickback for the state and places an unfair burden on relatives of inmates, who often have limited resources.
"It's a tax on citizens with the least ability to pay," said Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News, who said that he has received several complaints from relatives of inmates.
He said that many of the complaints involved lengthy delays in getting the money in the inmates' accounts.
Corrections officials, however, say that the new system is an improvement, and that thus far the state's income from the contract has been only $15,000.
"The vast majority of families and friends who have contacted us are pleased with the service and the convenience it offers," corrections spokeswoman Dorinda Carter wrote in an email response to questions.
Repeated attempts to reach JPay were unsuccessful.
The state never formally advertised for bids on the contract, though officials say they did review a proposal from another company, which, like JPay, had been recommended by a national association of state purchasing agents.
JPay also offers an email service for inmates, with the state getting a 4 percent commission.
The trust funds - each of the state's 20,351 inmates has one - are used to purchase items available in the prison commissaries and to pay co-pays charged for medical care or prescriptions, Carter said.
Tennessee is hardly the first state to implement such a program. In Pennsylvania, where JPay got a contract in 2010, inmates have filed a series of federal lawsuits challenging the practice. But all those efforts have resulted in quick dismissals.
The contract replaces a system under which deposits in prisoners' accounts were mailed directly to the 15 correctional facilities.
Carter said the amounts in the trust accounts can vary from zero to several thousand dollars "depending on an inmate's job and deposits from family and friends."
Paul Wright of the Human Rights Defense Center said the fees are "exorbitant."
"It's really a scam. It makes Western Union a bargain by comparison."
"What was wrong with the old system that had been in place for years?" Wright asked.
Malinda Wilson of Reconciliation, a nonprofit that assists inmates and their families, said the new system has caused confusion and distrust.
"Many of our families are on fixed incomes, and now they are being hit with extra fees and more bureaucracy," Wilson said. "They feel they are being used."
Wilson said the new system caught families by surprise, and the change was never explained.
"They have never explained the reason for the fees," Wilson said. "They made it sound like some new service, but it's another burden on the backs of our families."
In addition to the requirement to use JPay for inmates' deposits, the state recently expanded JPay's role to include payments of probation fees imposed on released inmates.
In addition to the money forwarding services, JPay's contract also provides for video visits, songs or albums on an MP3 and a JP4 player.
For those services, the state's commission jumps to as much as $10 per purchase.