Florida inmates sue state in digital music dispute

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida inmates are accusing state corrections officials of effectively stealing millions of dollars’ worth of digital music and books to benefit a new contractor.

Attorneys with the Social Justice Law Collective and the Florida Justice Institute filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday in Tallahassee, alleging a Department of Corrections program is unconstitutional because it doesn’t allow inmates to access more than $11 million worth of music bought for music players the agency has now banned.

The department in 2011 started allowing inmates in some facilities to purchase and download digital content to MP3 and MP4 players made specifically for prisoners, according to the lawsuit. About three years later, the department expanded the program and contracted with a company that had already been running the program, Keefe Commissary Network, LLC, doing business as “Access Corrections,” to take it statewide.

Prisoners could buy digital media players for $99.95 or $119.95, accessories for the players, and songs or files for $1.70 each. Prisoners were also required to purchase blocks of “prepaid media credits,” which required them to buy a minimum of five files or songs for $8.50.

Inmates used the “prepaid credits” at kiosks, where they could transfer their files to a cloud-based library. They could also use the kiosks, located inside the prisons, to transfer files from the cloud to digital players. Inmates had to connect their players to a kiosk every 30 days, for security purposes, or the device would be disabled, and they weren’t allowed to have players or files that weren’t purchased through the program.

The department, according to the lawsuit, “published numerous advertisements,” posted throughout prisons, “touting the qualities of the digital media players” and promising prisoners, “once music is purchased, you’ll always own it!”

The department also repeatedly told prisoners they could delete and re-order media files they had already purchased, at no additional cost.

But, the lawsuit alleges, corrections officials never told inmates the digital files would only be available during the contract with Access Corrections.

“Based in no small part on the belief by FDOC prisoners that any purchases they made through the Digital Music Player Program could be accessed for the duration of their incarceration with the FDOC, the Digital Music Player Program was a financial success for the FDOC,” the inmates’ lawyers wrote in the 27-page complaint.

From 2011 to 2017, the agency received about $1.4 million in commissions from the $11.3 million in sales during the six years the program was in effect, the lawsuit says.

In 2017, the department ended its contract with Access Corrections and entered into a contract with a new vendor, Jpay Inc.

Department spokeswoman Michelle Glady said the agency is not receiving any commissions from its multi-media contract with Jpay. The department receives commissions from Jpay through a separate contract for inmate banking services, she said.

Under the Jpay “Multimedia Tablet Program,” inmates can purchase tablets for $79.99 or $129.99 and download digital files.

In January 2018, after the tablet program was launched, the agency cut off access to prisoners’ cloud-based libraries and forced all inmates to surrender their digital media players when they received tablets. The agency set a deadline of Jan. 23, 2019, for inmates who didn’t want to participate in the tablet program to give up their digital players. The department allowed prisoners to send the old players to Access Corrections and pay $24.95 to have the players sent to people outside the prisons or have the files burned onto CDs and mailed to someone.

To encourage inmates to participate in the new program, agency officials offered a 50 percent discount on the tablets during the first 60 days and gave the tablets or sold them at a reduced cost to prisoners who had participated in the old program. They were also supposed to receive a $10 credit --- regardless of the number of digital media files an inmate had purchased --- within two weeks of placing their tablet orders. Inmates who were in the old program also receive a $25 annual allowance to buy files for their tablets, according to the corrections department.

Since the new program went into effect, “prisoners have written hundreds of grievances and administrative appeals complaining about the arbitrary confiscation of their property without compensation,” but the agency has denied the appeals, lawyers for the inmates wrote.

In response to the grievances and appeals, the agency “developed standard response language” acknowledging the “significant investment” prisoners and their families made in the old program but denied the appeals and continued to move forward with the tablet program, the lawsuit said.

Prisoners also can use the tablets to send emails, short videos or pictures, or for educational courses.

The lawyers filed the suit on behalf of William Demler, who was housed at the Hamilton Correctional Institution when he bought a digital media player for $99.95 in 2012 and who subsequently spent $569.50 to purchase 335 files. It also was filed on behalf of hundreds of other unnamed inmates.

Demler gave up his player in exchange for a free tablet in October, but he “was completely deprived of the use and enjoyment of all of his lawfully purchased songs and digital media files,” his lawyers wrote.

“The money he had invested in his digital media files has been effectively stolen from him,” the 27-page complaint reads.

The lawyers are seeking class-action status and allege that the taking of the digital media files “without just compensation” is unconstitutional. The lawyers also argue the new tablet program “is arbitrary and capricious, does not bear a substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals or welfare, has no rational basis, was undertaken for an improper motive, and is therefore an invalid exercise of police power,” and is an unconstitutional violation of rights to due process.

News Service of Florida