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Smartphone apps are chipping away at the flagrant exploitation of prisoners

Prisoners already face an uphill battle, but these apps aim to help alleviate their -- and their families' -- burdens.

Published onFebruary 15, 2019

  • Communication with prisoners can be difficut for their friends and family — and also costly and exploitative.
  • A relatively new crop of prison apps have popped up to address this issue and take some of the burden off.
  • A recent profile from Bloomberg dives deep into how these prison apps came around.

Although taxes help pay for the daily needs of the millions of incarcerated individuals in the United States (making up about one percent of the entire U.S. population, far more than in any other developed country), private corporations make billions of dollars every year off those same prisoners. One of the biggest money-making efforts these corporations utilize is paid communication between inmates and their friends and family.

In federal prison, a person must pay $0.21 per minute for long-distance phone calls, or $0.06 per minute for local calls. That might sound fair, but many prisoners make around $0.08 per hour for their labor, meaning one minute of one long-distance call equates to a little less than three hours of labor.

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In lieu of phone calls, many prisons have access to computers now, but that situation isn’t any better. In federal prisons, computer time costs $0.05 per minute with a 15-minute maximum on daily usage. This assumes that you even get access to a computer, as there are usually only a handful of computers shared by hundreds of other inmates.

Most of the money earned from these communication methods goes to private corporations in charge of running the services for a profit.

Statistics show that incarcerated individuals fare better in prison — and are far less likely to be sent back after release — if they are able to stay in touch frequently with loved ones. With the price-of-entry barrier set so high, many prisoners without means are left feeling alone and desolate, as if the world outside is moving along without them.

Not only are prisoners exploited by these profiteering communications methods, but lack of communication with the outside world causes high recidivism rates.

Smartphone app developers are attempting to solve these problems. Three particular prison apps — all started by ex-convicts — are trying to modernize prison communications to allow family and friends of inmates to more easily stay in touch.

These three apps focus on the same principle: give people “on the outside” the ability to communicate with those “on the inside” in the same way they communicate with anyone else, all the while bypassing (or at least limiting) reliance on costly telephone and computer services run by exploitative corporations.

The prison app Pigeonly, for example, allows users to snap pictures on their smartphone and upload them to Pigeonly servers. Pigeonly staff then print out the photos and mail them to the incarcerated recipient to which it was intended.

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Flikshop has a similar premise, although its focus is on creating postcards out of user-submitted photos.

InmateAid is another app aimed at lessening the burden on prisoners by facilitating an online connection at local phone rates regardless of geographical location.

While all these apps cost money to use, the people who started and own the apps are ex-convicts, making their aims much more altruistic than large corporations who are solely interested in profit.

A recent article from Bloomberg gives details about how these prison apps began and how they are affecting the lives of prisoners all across the U.S. It’s well worth a read if you are interested in how technology can help make everyone’s lives easier — even those who are currently behind bars.

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