To get cash to her son in prison, Pat Taylor of Tennessee uses a debit card through JPay Inc., a private company in Florida that handles all deposits into inmates' accounts. To send him $50, Taylor must pay $6.95 to JPay. The fee can be as high as 35 percent. In other states, JPay's fees approach 45 percent, reports the Center for Public Integrity. After the fee, the state takes out another 15 percent of her money for court fees and a mandatory savings account, which Eddie will receive on release in 2021, minus the interest, which goes to the state. “They're punishing the families, not the inmates,” Taylor says. JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars per year from inmate families in fees for basic financial services.
To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives. Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase. By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones. The costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.