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In prison, it’s often difficult to communicate with loved ones on the outside. Opportunities for phone calls are limited. Snail mail is slow. And the technology offered to incarcerated people by companies like JPay, including video kiosks and tablets, are often glitchy and unreliable. And for people earning pennies on the dollar, it can be expensive too.

Patrick Irving, a PJP contributor incarcerated in Idaho, is no stranger to tech-induced frustration inside. In recent months, he has been attempting to communicate with friends and family via a Jpay service known as VideoGram, which allows users to record a 30-second video message. 

The cost to send an outbound message is two digital “stamps,” equivalent to 80 cents. But in Irving’s experience, the technology frequently falters. In dozens of instances after he has paid for the service, his 30-second message has been cut to 14 seconds. 

Irving has made multiple pleas to JPay customer service, requesting both a remedy and a refund. His efforts have been unsuccessful. In some cases, responses from the company have taken weeks to receive. If the company fails to understand or resolve the issue after the first two communications, then a new support ticket must be opened. This, Irving said, is especially frustrating because the company only allows one support ticket to be open at a time. “So if a person is experiencing multiple issues — and we all experience multiple issues with JPay — then they must choose which item is the most important to present,” he said.

Below, PJP is publishing excerpts from conversations Irving has had with customer service representatives from the company about his predicament. In this piece, the discussion with customer representatives Sanchez and Faye took place in one ticket, the exchange with Monroe and Sydney in another — Irving responded to Sanchez and Faye answered, then he responded to Monroe and Sydney answered.

These excerpts, which speak to a universal human experience of the digital age, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

— PJP Editors

Patrick: By responding to the following communication, you, the responder(s), hereby acknowledge as a representative of JPay, Securus, and/or all peripheral/parent companies that this exchange will be published in a series investigating the abusive practices of your employer(s), and that by choosing to respond, you, the responder(s), consent to the release of all communications initiated by Patrick Irving and, furthermore, fully indemnify Mr. Irving, as well as any and all collaborators and publishers working with his consent, of any and all liabilities that result from your ongoing participation in this investigative series.

In all the complaints that I, Patrick Irving, author of the New York Times essay “Prisoners Like Me Are Being Held Hostage to Price Hikes,” have personally filed with your company over its defective VideoGram service — specifically, the way it cuts VideoGrams down to as few as 14 seconds after customers are billed for 30 — your customer service department continues to claim that your company is in fact providing the 30 seconds promised, and that I, investigative reporter Patrick Irving, have had the ability to ensure prior to purchase that every video I’ve ever sent is a full 30 seconds long. But even after confirming that I have recorded for 30 seconds, the recording, once paid for, is frequently reduced by as much as half, and sometimes even more.

Not long ago your company was fined millions of dollars by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for charging consumers excessively after forcing them into using your services. Yet you insist that it is company practice not to issue refunds even when you have accepted payment for services you cannot provide. Please explain the logic that drives your company to continue defrauding its customers with micro-scams similar to the one it is captured in now.

Sanchez: Hi Patrick. Thank you for contacting Ticket Support. We understand the frustration with your VideoGram messages and I am happy to help. While all VideoGram messages are allowed 30 seconds, they are able to be reviewed prior to sending to the selected contact. If you do not like the video or you are unable to record the full 30 seconds, you are able to review the VideoGram before sending. Unfortunately, the system will not allow a refund.

Patrick: To be clear, you do understand that I am complaining about VideoGrams being cut in half after I review them to verify that I have recorded for 30 seconds?

In fact, in at least one of our prior communications, your company acknowledged this as a software issue.

So what purpose does it serve to continue placing blame on customers when your company has already acknowledged that it is at fault? Is there perhaps some policy that requires Securus employees to shit on as many people as humanly possible throughout the course of their work shift?

Faye: The issues you are experiencing with the video recording feature have been reported to our customer service developers and they are working towards a resolution — once the issue has been found. Please keep checking back for its return to functionality.

Patrick: I see. And to your credit, acknowledging the problem is always the first step. But the next step, Faye, as I suspect you already know, is to be proactive in preventing future harm from being caused to your customers, and then, to begin making amends for all the harm you have caused in the past.

In this particular case, that would mean: 1) ensuring all of your customers are aware of the software issue 2) not encouraging your customers to spend even more of their money to test if the problem is fixed, and 3) refunding all those affected by your admittedly defective service.

As this is now the fifth time I have requested a refund for every one of my VideoGrams that has been cut short by 30 seconds — and by now we must presume that number to be reaching over 50. How about you begin with refunding me and save us both a bit of a hassle?

Monroe: Hi Patrick. Thank you for contacting Ticketing Support. We understand how frustrating it can be to have VideoGram issues. Please respond back with the name of the kiosk to escalate the issue.

Patrick: As you’ll note, Monroe, in complaints CCI-IMSI499470, CCI-IMSI49336 and CCI-IMSI539504, I inform your company that the problem persists on multiple kiosks, and to this the response is always the same: “The issues you are experiencing with the video recording feature have been reported to our software developers and they are working toward a resolution …”

And so I say to you again, your company is charging for services it is unable to provide as advertised and refusing to issue refunds to customers who complain. Please explain the policy that guides you to defraud your customers in such a way.

Sydney: Hi Patrick. Thank you for contacting Ticketing Support. We understand the frustration with your VideoGram message and I am happy to help. While all VideoGram messages are allowed 30 seconds, you are able to view the VideoGram before sending. Unfortunately, the system will not allow a refund.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Patrick Irving, a writer incarcerated in Idaho, is the author of the newsletter First Amend This. He is a contributor to the Prison Journalism Project‌, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Idaho Law Review, The Harbinger and