Photo: Getty

On Tuesday, a lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed on behalf of prisoners who accuse the Florida Department of Corrections of ripping off inmates by selling them digital media players and MP3s that they were assured they’d be able to keep for life. When the FDOC ended its contract with the device providers, the inmates lost the files and players on which they’d collectively spent $11.3 million to purchase.

The lawsuit was first reported by the Florida Times-Union, which explained that it’s being handled by the Florida Justice Institute on behalf of William Demler, a 74-year-old inmate at the South Florida Reception Center. Demler, who is serving a life sentence, hopes the court will grant his request to bring others into the lawsuit.

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According to the complaint, from 2011 to 2017, Demler and other inmates were offered the chance to purchase digital media players to listen to music or audiobooks. The devices were supplied by a contractor named Access Corrections, and inmates could purchase one for $99 or $119, with individual songs and audiobooks being offered for $1.70 apiece. The court filing claims that advertising materials assured inmates that they would “always own” what they purchased. It also quotes a section from the user guide that reads:

You can delete and Re-Order songs as often as you want. You will never be charged for a song that is ordered from the Re-Order Manager. After all, you have already paid for the song once; we don’t think you should ever have to pay for it again.

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But in 2018, the FDOC switched its media device contractor from Access Corrections to JPay. The lawsuit claims that Demler personally spent nearly $700 for the device and various MP3s but found that money went up in smoke when the new contractor was brought on. Inmates were required to either trade their old device for a new one or pay a $25 fee to have it shipped to someone outside, according to the lawsuit. The suit also says their MP3 purchases did not transfer to the new device and were not accessible in the future through a download from the cloud.

While some inmates may have technically held onto the files that were stored on the device if they decided to ship it, the purpose of these devices is for the inmate to be able to listen while they’re incarcerated. And for someone like Demler, shipping his device does him no good when he has no hope of being released. In all, the lawsuit claims inmates spent $11.3 million and purchased a total of 6.7 million files.

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The FDOC takes a commission on inmate purchases, and the filing claims that the switch to incompatible JPay devices that would require files to be re-purchased “allows the FDOC to realize even higher profit margins.”

When we asked the FDOC for comment on the suit, a spokesperson told us, “The Department has not been served this lawsuit. Our legal office will thoroughly review it upon receipt.”

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The lawsuit is seeking the return of inmates’ devices and files as well as an acknowledgment that the FDOC violated prisoners’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. According to the Florida Times-Union:

If certified, the class could be sprawling in scale. Inmates filed grievances about the MP3 program so frequently that the Department of Corrections created a separate category in December 2017 to track hundreds of related grievance appeals at the administrative level.

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JPay is just one of many sleazy companies that seek to profit from people in prison who can do little to protest exorbitant fees. Last year, JPay made headlines for selling prisoners “digital stamps”—that is to say it charged around 35 cents to send a “single page” email. JPay is a subsidiary of Securus, a company perhaps best known for charging inmates what they earn in an hour for every minute they make a personal phone call. Securus landed in hot water when its complicated deal with telecoms to provide law enforcement with location data attracted unwanted attention from Senator Ron Wyden. These are vile companies, and the world would be a better place if everyone involved with them was locked up alongside their customers.

[U.S. District Court via The Florida Times-Union]

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