This story is published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. Subscribe to College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter on the future of postsecondary education in prison.
For more than two weeks, every time I tried to log in to GettingOut, a prison messaging app, I got the same error message:
We’re sorry, but something went wrong. We’ve been notified about this issue and we’ll take a look at it shortly.
As an education reporter covering prisons, I use GettingOut primarily to communicate with incarcerated writers and sources. I talk to people in multiple facilities across several states on a fairly regular basis. Suddenly, for all of them, it seemed as if I had just disappeared. I got emails from people inside via their outside contacts asking if I was OK. I was no longer on their contact lists, and all of our messages were suddenly gone.
The somewhat ironically named GettingOut is used by corrections departments in states including California, North Carolina, Oregon, Maryland, and Ohio. The company is a subsidiary of ViaPath, a prison tech company formerly known as Global Tel Link. Together, ViaPath and its biggest competitor, Securus, dominate more than 80 percent of the prison e-messaging market, according to a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Prison telecom is an estimated billion-dollar industry.
When I couldn’t log in to the app, I tried to go through regular customer service channels, calling ViaPath’s 1-800 number several times, usually to find that the option to speak with a human had been disabled. At least six messages to the company’s general customer service address went unanswered.
Several other reporters had experienced the same disappearing account phenomenon, and it wasn’t until we played the journalist card that we got some answers from the company. Some executives agreed to meet with me last week. Matt Caesar, chief strategy officer at ViaPath, was the only one who answered any questions on the record. (The night before my meeting, my account and its content were restored.)
It turned out that the glitch was due to “an unexpected issue during a system conversion from a prior provider to GettingOut” that affected less than 1 percent of users, a ViaPath spokesperson wrote in an email. The company declined to share its total number of users, but my reporting from earlier this year found that the company has deployed around 500,000 tablets in prisons.
Here’s the thing: Everyone has crappy customer service stories to tell, whether it’s with an airline, a bank, or calling the Department of Education about student loans. That’s not really what this story is about.
For people in prison, these issues cut off a lifeline to the outside world (even if just temporarily), and customer service is often effectively nonexistent. As Lyle C. May—an incarcerated writer I work with who was on the other end of the app issues—put it, “I’m in prison. I have no recourse.”
For me, it was annoying that I couldn’t log in to my account and spent several hours trying to fix the problem. But I had other communications channels, and I could spend time on addressing the issue as part of my workday. I wasn’t trying to send a goodnight message to my partner or look at photos of my kids.
Once my account access was restored, I asked May about this. “Incarcerated people don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing how to communicate,” he told me in a message. “Speed and certainty of the contact are the two top concerns.”
May, who is incarcerated in North Carolina, relies on his tablet to communicate with various editors and the academic adviser for his college program. Although his adviser and I were the only two contacts that disappeared in this glitch, such problems imperil his professional life: We thought a short story (which, fittingly, was about the educational content offered on ViaPath tablets) he had submitted for my newsletter on prison education was gone forever.
The inconsistency embedded in prison tech makes getting a degree inside even more fraught. Losing contact with his academic adviser means that May can’t quickly resolve issues related to completing his degree program, which is already incredibly challenging.
May didn’t have another way to contact customer service or tech support. There’s an app on his tablet where he’s supposed to be able to submit support requests, but he said there was no way to send a message.
May isn’t the only person I talk to inside who has had these tech issues. Heather Jarvis, who is incarcerated in Ohio, told me that because the state is in the process of converting from Securus to ViaPath, there’s a technician who is holding open hours for in-person support while they work out the kinks, but “the line is insane.”
So what did ViaPath have to say about the challenges of customer support inside? “In each of the facilities, there’s different methods that an incarcerated individual has to request a refund or contact our support,” Caesar said during our meeting. “And that’s generally through the tablet.”
In response to a follow-up question via email about what recourse people have inside when something goes wrong, a ViaPath spokesperson also wrote that the company has recently invested in improving its customer service and will be establishing a direct line for friends and family to contact with concerns.
May and I have gone back and forth about this issue over the past few days. I sent him 45 messages at 25 cents each for a total of $11.25. On the inside, people in some states pay per minute of usage, and May estimated he spent about 120 minutes, which cost another $1.20. So, in all, we paid ViaPath $12.40 to discuss ViaPath.
(To put this in context, Lyle says that most people in North Carolina prisons make between 40 cents and $1 a day. Lyle pays $15 for a package of 1,500 minutes—or around 1 cent a minute—of messaging and entertainment. If people can’t afford to buy a package, they pay 3 cents a minute.)
There are other practical implications. Because incarcerated people don’t have a platform like Google Drive to back up their content, they often pay for messaging as a way to store their writing. The good news? ViaPath assured me that no users lost their data with the glitch that I experienced last week and that data is backed up and restored.
That brings me to another set of issues I saw this past week: privacy and information retention. The same companies that provide messaging also provide phone services. As the Prison Policy Initiative put it, “There are … grave privacy concerns when one company controls all communications channels to which incarcerated people have access.”
All this data storage is a reminder that everything said or written over prison communication channels is being recorded. Generally, Caesar said, ViaPath’s retention policies vary based on the facility—lasting potentially multiple years—and their contracts with corrections agencies. The company retains everything from phone calls to videos, “anything we’re recording and monitoring for them,” he said.
This raises some important questions that educators will have to contend with as the tech landscape in prison continues to evolve. While people in prison have never had privacy when making a phone call, advances in technology allow for a greater degree of surveillance of incarcerated people—and their contacts on the outside—than ever before.
Colleges working in this space have to weigh issues of student privacy with ease and speed of communication. Should messaging systems be used only to send mundane information? Who is responsible for providing tech support if a student sends an assignment that suddenly disappears? If a student submits an essay on their tablet, could the content later be used against them? These issues are especially relevant as prison tech companies continue to position themselves as providers of educational content—and in some cases of education itself.
May said educators and others on the outside are naïve if they think they have any privacy or aren’t being censored when communicating with incarcerated people on digital platforms. Ultimately, the need to connect with the outside world trumps frustrations over privacy, which doesn’t really exist in prison anyway. “Incarcerated students have to communicate,” May said, “by any means available, not necessarily the means they want.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.