April 16, 2015
A few years back Ryan Shapiro had a friend whose mother was arrested and taken to Rikers Island Prison in New York City. No doubt, the situation was stressful, especially when it came to making payments to his mother.
His friend had to wait in long lines, provide cash to a person behind a screen, and then hope his transaction was successful while he waited for his mother to let him know she received it. The words inconvenient and cumbersome don’t even begin to describe this process.
If you’re thinking that in today’s modern world there should be a better process for this, you aren’t alone. That’s why Shapiro founded JPay in 2002: to innovate for families who wanted to make electronic payments directly into inmate accounts.
“Today we have over two thirds of the inmates covered in this country with our payment service – around 1.6 million inmates,” says Shapiro.
But what started as a simple payment solution would soon take on a life of its own and evolve into something new and grand. Email integration came shortly after as Shapiro saw families preferring to use the internet over call centers and other methods to contact their loved ones.
“In the real world you have that need to communicate with your parents, and waiting a week to hear back isn’t sufficient,” says Shapiro.
In that vein, email printouts weren’t enough, so Shapiro and his JPay team then built a hardened PC kiosk, fixed to the wall, that let inmates respond directly back to their emails instantly. They also built out video messaging features, music downloads – there are 11 million tracks available, and individual tablets to house approved content on.
“What started as a simple payment system has transformed into a business where we have a real impact on the prison system,” says Shapiro. “We have 50,000 tablets in the field, which means 50,000 inmates are using our tablets every day to better themselves.”
Imagine what access to those resources could do for a person coming out of prison. They’re arriving in today’s fast paced world with few connections and fewer resources. Having a platform for strong communications in prison helps inmates secure a place to stay when they get out, get job references, and receive education.
Yes, that’s right – JPay even has a platform for education services for inmates. They take tests, upload them into the system, and an accredited teacher grades them and pushes back report cards. Shapiro built partnerships with Ashland University in Ohio for this, and he’s got about six more lined up to integrate coursework soon.
“We only hear good things from staff, inmates, and family members. The only negative thing is the argument of why they deserve a tablet – their prisoners. But that’s only before people opposing the idea understand the benefit it has for society in general.”
According to Shapiro, what JPay has successfully done is change the nature of corrections – the inmates become more productive because they have goals to keep their minds occupied and will commit less crime upon reintegration into society. Today JPay is in more than 30 states across the country and growing.
“We started in 2002, weren’t profitable until 2006, and even a few years after that there was so much building going on that we didn’t see increased margins until very recently,” says Shapiro. “Entrepreneurship is a game of patience. And if you believe it’s going to happen you have to put everything you have into it becoming successful.”
The long term goal is to get JPay into the hands of every inmate in the country as quickly as they can. As they roll out the services, Shapiro and his team will be focusing on the education aspects of JPay above all else: it’s what they’re betting their chips on for the long haul.
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