The high fees from prison banks keep some in poverty

Prison banking systems are profiting from the families of inmates by exacting high transaction fees on deposits to commissary accounts, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.

Prisoners use the money in commissary accounts to pay for several items or services, from toiletries and warm clothes to doctor’s appointments and electricity.

Families used to send money by going to a local gas station or convenience store to buy a money order and mail it.

Now, prison banking is an industry. They “collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services,” according to the story.

Many of these families often do not come from privileged backgrounds. The fees are enough to bury them in debt or stop them from going to the doctor and paying for utilities.

JPay is the largest prison banker, serving about 70 percent of the U.S. prison population.

And their system, according to the story, makes it easier for even more money to be skimmed off the top of what ultimately arrives in inmates’ accounts.

JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.

Taken together, 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.

The founder of JPay told the Center for Public Integrity their fees are just enough for the company to make a "razor-thin profit margin."

JPay does allow money orders to be sent in by families who want to avoid fees, but the company says most customers switch to the online transfer system — despite complaints by families that the money transferred online takes too long to become available.

In Pennsylvania, the first state where JPay accepted money orders by mail, executives were surprised to see the number of money orders plunge by two-thirds in the first two months, Chief Financial Officer Mark Silverman explained in a brief interview.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.