Florida prisoners fight seizure of their digital music

By Brian Williams
March 11, 2019

Officials in Florida have confiscated all the digital music and audiobooks purchased by workers behind bars in every prison in the state. The reason? So that the Florida Department of Corrections could “enter into a more profitable contract with a new vendor,” said a news release issued by the Florida Justice Institute and the Social Justice Law Collective, both of which joined to file a federal class-action lawsuit Feb. 19 against this seizure of prisoners’ possessions.

In 2011 the Florida Department of Corrections contracted with private companies to provide media services. Prisoners were permitted to purchase MP3 players and media files, with the promise, as one advertisement put it, “Once music is purchased, you’ll always own it!”

“Prisoners were promised they would be able to own these media files forever,” Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, told the Militant in a phone interview Feb. 22. “The department went back on its promise, switched vendors and prisoners had to surrender their music.

“This is one of the only things they have in prison,” he added. “Their property was taken without compensation.”

This policy, the lawsuit says, is a clear violation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Prison authorities presided and profited from the sale of more than 30,300 players and 6.7 million song downloads, the Department of Corrections admits. That’s about $11.3 million worth of music. The Department of Corrections took their cut, pocketing $1.4 million in commissions.

In 2018 prison authorities signed a contract with JPay, which already makes a hefty profit operating banking services and the phone system at state-run prisons.

Prisoners have been barred from transferring any of their digital media files they had purchased from the previous contractor onto the new players. And authorities set a Jan. 23 deadline requiring prisoners to turn in their old media players and files, or — for a fee — they could have them turned over to a friend or their family outside the prison. To listen to music or audio books, inmates will now have to buy a new media player from JPay and repurchase all their digital files — a profit boon for JPay and more commissions for the Department of Corrections.

Katherine Freeman, who is incarcerated at Homestead Correctional Institution, filed a grievance against this operation, saying she would lose more than $2,000 worth of music she had purchased since 2014.

In justifying the prison’s new policy, assistant warden Timothy Hoey wrote, “It was not 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.”

In simple language, profits come first, and the rights of the prisoners count not at all. They’re just supposed to start out all over paying more and more.

The lawsuit isn’t seeking money for the prisoners, Trevisani said, “but to somehow give prisoners access to the digital media files they already purchased.”