Inmates gamed their prison-issued tablets to get $225,000 in credits

Tablets are an expensive window into the free world.
Tablets are an expensive window into the free world.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s being called a “Robin Hood” story.

Inmates in the US state of Idaho reportedly gamed a prison account system, gaining nearly a quarter of a million dollars in credit.

Inmates keep special online accounts, run by prison-services company JPay, where their loved ones can deposit funds. The system lets them use the funds as credit for video visits, messages, and even games and music downloads on special tablets provided by the company.

An investigation by the Idaho Department of Corrections and JPay showed that earlier this month, 363 inmates hacked the system, crediting their accounts with sums that went up to nearly $10,000. Inmates’ families told the Associated Press that they see the incident as a glitch—not an intentional ploy on the part of the inmates—and that they were worried about the consequences. Prison authorities wrote up the inmates in question in disciplinary reports, which could result in them losing privileges, getting moved to higher-security levels, or even affect their chance of parole, the AP reported.

JPay told Quartz that the inmates were not stealing money, and compared the incident to someone gaming an iTunes account to falsely add credit. They were placing items in their cart and removing it in a way that created credit, which was added to their tally of available funds.

“While the vast majority of individuals use our secure technology appropriately, we are continually working to improve our products to prevent any attempts at misuse,” Jade Trombetta, a JPay spokesperson said in a statement.

Even if it were a deliberate scheme, many argue that it is a victimless crime. Taxpayer money did not disappear, the company said. And JPay, as well as its parent company Securus, has been criticized for years for gauging inmates and their families on the costs of simply staying in touch.

A recent contract between the New York Department of Corrections and JPay, acquired by the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative, shows the pitfalls of tablet programs like JPay’s. The company provides tablets to prisons for free, and costs associated with using the devices are transferred to the families of the incarcerated (or the inmates themselves, who frequently make less than $1 an hour). In New York, to transfer any amount up to $20 into an inmate’s account, there’s a $3.15 service fee, which jumps to $4.15 for phone calls—transfers above $20 have even higher fees. A 30-minute video call costs as much as $9, and each email costs $0.35 (in Idaho, it’s $0.49).

Technology could really help connect the incarcerated with the outside world, bolster rehabilitation efforts, increase access to education, and maintain family ties. But it’s also a big business, which often undercuts the technology’s promise.