As a company that operates in the corrections space, JPay is in the unique position to observe the prevailing trends in the operation and administration of prisons. One trend that has dominated discourse lately is the privatization of American prisons in an effort to alleviate the cost of running these facilities for state and municipal governments. Clearly, this has been a polarizing development; many decry the corporatization of incarceration, claiming that privatization is a pathway to “punishment for profit,” while others cite potential efficiencies that competition and innovation on the open market might usher in. There are rigid ideologies underpinning each of these positions – hence the polarization – and as a philosophical argument, the relative merits versus drawbacks of privatization may never be reconciled. In practice, however, there are alternatives to the all-or-nothing prospect of strictly for-profit prisons, or state-run prisons managed with bureaucratic inefficiency.
It is the inefficiency of correctional systems that drives the drumbeat for privatization. And this inefficiency can be countered with forward-thinking policies and service offerings on the part of correctional agencies.
JPay, at its core, is about providing needed, relevant services to the family and friends of the incarcerated. In many cases, JPay’s solutions relieve the supervising agencies (departments of correction, county sheriff’s offices) of the burden of providing these services themselves. Electronic funds transfer, for instance, eliminates or partially eliminates the need for corrections staff to post and process physical money orders in order to deposit funds into inmates’ trust accounts. Inmate email similarly reduces the labor and administrative costs associated with sorting and distributing traditional mail. Media-based services like video visitation and inmate mp3 players create their own efficiencies (video visitation provides an alternative to visits at the prison, reducing supervisory burdens and decreasing inmate movement; mp3 players contribute to a calmer population) while providing social, rehabilitative, and recidivism-mitigation benefits.
Creating efficiency through technological innovation is the primary benefit enjoyed by correctional agencies that employ JPay’s services, even as those services are designed for the friends and families of inmates. It is through this creation of efficiency that JPay provides an alternative to prison privatization.
JPay’s services also demonstrate that a free market approach to some aspects of the correctional system need not represent a descent into the corporatization of the penal system. As a for-profit company, JPay implements a pay-for-service model that relies on friends and family members to pay a fair price for the convenience associated with JPay’s services. This model is not dependent on increasing incarceration rates, but rather on the relevance and quality of the services provided. Detractors of privatization are often distracted by the slipperiness of the slope they describe, citing an inherent incentive to grow the prison population; JPay’s communication- and reentry-focused operations stand as a refute to that argument.
Granted, JPay’s business model is just one in a sea of corrections-related vendors and providers. There may be merit to the charge that private prison operators are incented to keep their prisons full, which leads them to oppose any legislative or social efforts to reduce the incarcerated population (though whether privatization or policy are the chicken or the egg in this scenario is unclear). Other providers, like commissary companies, may have a different set of incentives altogether. What JPay does represent, however, is an alternative approach, and an illustration of how technology can drive efficiency even in an industry as rooted in tradition as corrections.
Expanded prison privatization may or may not be the answer for increasingly cash-strapped state and municipal governments. The argument, however, should be about how to best encourage efficiency in corrections operations, and in that argument, there are many sides. There are alternatives.