The JP5mini. (Photo: Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)
We’ve already seen a bunch of buzzworthy new tech toys in 2015, including the Apple Watch and the DJI Drone. But for many prison inmates, the most exciting digital release of the year arrives this month.
That’s when JPay will ship its latest tablet, the JP5mini. Though the 4.3-inch device can’t compare with something like the iPad, this latest version of JPay’s prison-optimized gadget promises a slew of improvements — including an app store and wireless capabilities — that signal the changing technical landscape in America’s correctional facilities.
“This is what’s going to replace phones eventually,” JPay founder Ryan Shapiro told Yahoo Tech. “There are going to be major changes within the prison system environment because of this technology.”
Built to survive
The $70 tablet might appear clunky to the average techie’s eye, but it’s been designed to appeal to both inmates and prison officials.
The JP5mini’s dual-core processor and 32-megabyte memory chip are encased in a transparent polycarbonate plastic that’s designed to withstand 250-degree temperatures and falls from a three-story building (while also making it easy to inspect its innards for contraband). You can stand on it, throw it across the room, or spill water on it and the JP5mini will still power on. On a full charge, it has enough battery life to play up to 35 hours of music or 12 hours of video, JPay says.
JPay’s tablets have clear plastic cases to prevent inmates from hiding contraband in them. (Photo: Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)
The app commissary
The tablet’s software is also getting an upgrade to better fill the downtime of inmates.
Though it doesn’t yet run Candy Crush, it now includes a new batch of game titles, alongside such classics as Chinese checkers and Sudoku (its most-used game).
These new games — along with a selection of educational apps — will soon be available in a new digital store, modeled after those of Apple and Google. Third-party developers willing to go through an approval process more rigorous than Apple’s will be able to sell their apps in the JPay marketplace. Among other requirements: Those developers must be willing to change their apps’ color schemes, in case certain colors or symbols are banned in individual facilities.
Each tablet is assigned an individual number and password associated with the inmate, to limit theft. (Photo: Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)
While inmates using the JP5mini can buy games or music on their own, they’ll need to undergo a stringent review process before they get permission to interact with the outside world, just as they did with past tablets. Whenever an inmate writes an email, buys an e-card, or records a low-quality “videogram,” he or she must then sync the tablet at a designated kiosk; those outgoing messages are then automatically submitted to supervisors for review. If it’s harmless, it’ll be forwarded to recipients. If not, it won’t make it beyond the prison walls.
JPay’s most popular e-card. Inmates pay an average of 30 cents per message to send cards like these. (Image: Courtesy of JPay)
The fact that JPay’s latest edition is Wi-Fi enabled, however, indicates that many prison systems are becoming more permissive with communications. In some cases, it may be used to support some of the live “video visitations” — online videoconferencing sessions — that JPay’s products support.
JPay is not alone in the prison-electronics market. Earlier this year Fusion’s Kevin Roose wrote about a Napa County Jail that uses tablets from a Chicago-based startup called Jail Education Solutions. These tablets can be rented for $2 a day and are sometimes even provided to prisoners for free. They, too, include games, videos, and education apps for inmates, with a heavy focus on recidivism.
New tech, high costs
The system is not without flaws. In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity published a damning investigation that showed how the company’s high electronic-money-transfer fees weighed heavily on the families of inmates, who are statistically a low-income demographic. Depending on the state, the fee could be as high as 45 percent of the amount transferred, and in some instances it was the only option for families to send money to their loved ones. Two months after the report, JPay eliminated fees altogether in Indiana, Ohio, and Oklahoma without comment.
More recently, the service was entangled in a civil rights dispute. After a disagreement between an inmate and the Indiana Correctional Facility, the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered that JPay’s terms of service included a passage that claimed all intellectual property rights to the content sent through its systems. Soon after, JPay removed that language because, according to Shapiro, it was simply outdated.
Since Shapiro started the JPay site in 2001, his company has grown exponentially. He struck deals with state correctional facilities to directly set up electronic payment systems, released an MP3 player, and then moved on to tablets. Between its electronic payment service, MP3 players, and tablets, JPay has served more than 1.9 million inmates. The company has sold over 60,000 units of its last tablet, the JP4. Currently, facilities in Idaho and New Jersey have signed on to order nearly 3,000 of the new tablets.
As Shapiro looks to the future of his company, he envisions a wearable. “Inmates are very mobile,” he told Yahoo Tech. “They’re in the yard, they’re exercising, they might want to count their steps. When you look at the outside world and put your prison glasses on, stuff like wearables would be very cool.”