Private firm takes over prison funds

cjarvis@newsobserver.comOctober 9, 2013 

  • How to do it

    •  Money orders: Payable to JPay with a deposit slip sent to JPay, P.O. Box 173070, Hialeah, Fla.

    •  Online: Use a credit or debit card at JPay.com.

    •  Mobile app: Download the JPay mobile app from the Apple App Store at http://bit.ly/1bI1B64 or Google Play at http://bit.ly/19ADL4G.

    •  Toll-free phone: Pay by credit or debit card at 800-574-5729.

    •  Walk-in: Make a cash deposit at MoneyGram sites, including all Walmarts and CVS pharmacies.

    Further details: N.C. Department of Public Safety at http://bit.ly/18PZxV7.

People will no longer be able to send money directly to friends and relatives who are in North Carolina prisons. Instead, a private company will do it for them and, in most cases, charge them a fee.

The state Department of Public Safety has contracted with a Miami-based firm that last week began offering new, faster ways to send prisoners money: over the Internet, on the telephone or at some pharmacies.

The company, JPay, also will handle money orders, which is the way prisoners have been receiving money. All of the options will cost a fee – ranging from $3.45 for online transfers of up to $20, to $11.65 for telephone transfers of up to $300 – except for money orders, which will not cost anything beyond the small fee the post office already charges.

The state is promoting the change as a convenience, but some prisoner advocates and those who regularly visit prisons are concerned that the change will be confusing to some families who might not be able to afford the extra cost and don’t have access to computers.

“The families of people in prison, they have enough burdens already,” said Mary Hughes Brookhart, a Carrboro woman who regularly visits a death-row prisoner as a volunteer commitment.

Elizabeth Forbes of N.C. CURE, a national prisoner advocacy group, says she has already heard complaints from families who are confused about the change. Forbes shared an email from one irate person, who predicted it will cost the state more in the long run because fewer relatives will send money and prisoners will rely on state resources.

Prisoners typically spend money in the canteen, which sells snacks, watches, radios, stamps, hygiene items and other products. There is a limit to how much they can spend each week. Prisoners can earn money by working jobs, which range in pay from 40 cents to $1 a day, or an hourly wage for some advanced work programs.

Forbes said the state’s 38,000 prisoners are also bound to be confused about the change because new policies are not communicated well, leaving inmates who have little contact with friends or family unaware.

The change has been posted on the Department of Public Safety’s website, and notification sent to each prison.

Correction spokesman Keith Acree said North Carolina is following the lead of other states that have been doing this for years.

JPay’s website says the company operates in more than 30 states, providing not only money transfers, but email, music and games on computers prisoners can buy, processing court-ordered payments for probation, and providing video visits between prisoners and those on the outside. Acree said there are no plans for those services.

North Carolina’s arrangement with JPay costs the state nothing. The state will receive 25 cents for every electronic and telephone transaction, and that money goes into a fund that pays for televisions, books and magazines, recreational equipment and stamps for prisoners’ use.

Acree said the state wanted to retain the no-cost money order option to help families. Adding the other services makes for significant efficiencies, he said. Turning the money orders over to the company will allow prison mail room workers to spend more time processing mail and screening it as a security measure.

Last fiscal year, more than 600,000 individual money orders and cashier’s checks, totaling about $30 million, came through the state’s prison mail rooms, Acree said. The new options will put money in inmates’ accounts much quicker, Acree said, in some cases as soon as the next business day, he said.

When prisoners are released after serving their sentence, they will receive a debit card with the balance of their personal trust fund, saving prison staff from having to drive to the bank to get a check for them.

The prisons will continue to accept money orders through a transition period that lasts until Nov. 1. After that, money orders will have to be sent to JPay along with a deposit slip.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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