An inmate has filed a class-action suit against the Florida Department of Corrections for confiscating his digital media files. William Demler says that since 2012, he has spent more than $550 on digital music, downloaded to a prison-sponsored music player he acquired for $99.95. But when the FDOC switched music vendors last year, Demler was told he’d have to purchase all his music again if he wanted to continue having access to it.
So, Demler decided to sue, arguing that the department broke its promise and violated his Fifth Amendment right to just compensation for any property taken by the government. According to Demler’s lawsuit, ads for the custom-designed media players that the prison began selling in 2011 promised inmates that they’d keep their purchases forever. “Once music is purchased, you’ll always own it,” one ad boasted. The lawsuit states that the FDOC sold nearly 6.7 million digital media files between 2011 and 2017, costing prisoners and their family roughly $11.3 million.
The FDOC has contracted private vendors to provide digital media entertainment to prisoners since 2011. When it first switched vendors in 2014, inmates were allowed to transfer the music they had purchased from the old vendor. But in 2018, the FDOC signed a new contract with JPay, a private company that already operates bank accounts and facilitates phone calls in state-run prisons. This time, inmates learned that they wouldn’t be able to keep their music. In one grievance, inmate Katherine Freeman said she had purchased more than $2,200 worth of music since 2014. In response, the assistant warden wrote that it wasn’t “feasible to download content from one vendor’s device to another, not only due to incompatibility reasons, but the download of content purchased from one vendor to another vendor’s device would negate the new vendor’s ability to be compensated for their services.”
The FDOC did give inmates some options to keep their music—but only sort of. They can choose to send their old music players—with all the content permanently stored on the device—to someone outside of prison. They could also have their player’s contents burned to a CD that would then be mailed to a friend or relative. In either case, they’d have to pay $24.95 for the service, and they’d still lose access to their music—at least until they serve out their term. For Demler, who’s serving a life sentence, neither option sounds appealing. He says his only relative outside of prison is a 92-year-old uncle who has no use for his music.
So many inmates sent in complaints about the loss of their files that the Department of Corrections had to create a separate category to track them. In the grievance he filed, Demler wrote: “Discontinuing the program and forcing inmates to give up their players without compensation amounts to an act of fraud.”
This case is part of a larger problem. In prisons, private companies are tapping into a so-called captive market—one in which consumers have little choice—and building monopolies over digital services. As Mia Armstrong wrote in August, the unregulated prison market leaves lots of room for exploitation of inmates and their families. At the Colorado State Penitentiary, for instance, inmates are charged 50 cents for each typed page of an email.