Florida prisons are getting sued for erasing $11 million worth of prisoner music purchases

By Adi Robertson

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A Florida prison inmate is suing after a switch between contractors removed prisoners’ access to millions of dollars’ worth of their own music. As reported by The Florida Times-Union, William Demler filed a class-action suit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) — which he says falsely promised to let inmates buy music permanently through one digital media provider, then cut off their access to sign a more lucrative deal with another.

Demler’s complaint involves Florida’s digital music player program, which let inmates buy a specially designed media player for $99 or $119, then buy individual songs or audiobooks for $1.70 apiece. The complaint claims that prisons heavily advertised the program, run by contractor Access Corrections, with promises that inmates could keep songs forever. Between 2011 and 2017, prisoners spent roughly $11.3 million to buy 6.7 million files in total, and Demler himself spent roughly $569 buying music, plus more money for the player itself.

But in 2018, the FDOC switched to a new company called JPay, which didn’t honor the earlier purchases. The agency required inmates to trade in their music players for new multimedia tablets, or to pay $25 and have the players shipped to someone outside prison. (They could also pay to ship a CD containing the music.)

Demler’s complaint argues that the FDOC rolled out JPay’s tablet system — and required inmates to turn in their old media players — “to realize even higher profit margins.” As a result, it’s “effectively stolen millions of dollars of digital music and books from the prisoners in its custody.” The Times-Union notes that outside the music program, JPay has helped the FDOC make millions of dollars off commissions for money transfers, video calls, and other services, which are often provided at a massively inflated cost. The FDOC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Access and JPay have both been referred to as the aspiring “iTunes of the prison world,” offering MP3 files that replace older, physical media storage formats. But as with similar services outside prison, these systems have muddied the meaning of “owning” songs — while serving a user base with little money and few other options for music.

In 2016, Michigan inmates filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against another prison MP3 company, which was requiring them to buy a second media player if they wanted to listen to songs after leaving prison. That suit was tossed in 2017. This time, the complaint argues that the FDOC is effectively confiscating private property without due process, in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. If it’s certified by a judge, Demler’s case could cover any Florida inmate who spent money on songs they can no longer play.